Breaking the cycle of childhood poverty

Sep 27, 2010

Poverty as an inheritance seems very un-American. We tend to believe everyone has a chance to make their own success.

I still believe that is true, and it is everything that Amway stands for. But a recent study from the Urban Institute defines what we are up against.

According to the study, a child born poor is likely to spend half their childhood in poverty. The study, “Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences,” is the first research to connect poverty status at birth with other outcomes throughout life.

Today, 13 percent of the 4.2 million babies born each year in the U.S. are born poor, according to the study. An estimated 14.1 American children under age 18 are considered poor, more than just 10 years ago. In 2000, about one in six American children were considered poor. Today, one in five live in poverty.

These children are also more likely to experience poverty as adults, to drop out of high school, and to have children of their own as teens. More than 30 percent of “persistently poor” children spend half their early adult years in poverty, compared to only one percent of “never poor” children, according to the Urban Institute.

It’s pretty overwhelming. So how do you stop the cycle?

By intervening early and often, say the researchers. Writing in “Spotlight on Poverty,” they suggest hospital staff identify children born into poor families at birth and get them access to help and support offered by government and community-based programs.   

And we can help by supporting those programs. 

United Way campaigns around the country are wrapping up this week. Giving to United Way helps community organizations provide the kind of services that can break the cycle of poverty.

In our community for example, Catholic Charities of West Michigan offers a Healthy Start/Healthy Families program that connects the child and family while still in the hospital to health, nutrition and mental health resources and helps them navigate how to get the help they need. Arbor Circle offers services for parents and their children, including counseling and help with developing parenting skills. Baxter Community Center’s Child Development Center and United Methodist Community House’s Child Development Center both offer comprehensive child development support, including day care, so parents can work or go to school.

To learn about United Way-supported programs in your community that benefit children and families, visit

A growing number of organizations are also being formed to help communities address the needs of its youngest citizens. Here in West Michigan, First Steps is a community collaboration working to develop a strong system of support for children from birth to age five and their families. The First Steps Commission is co-chaired by Amway President Doug DeVos.

The statistics can be daunting. But sometimes it just takes a little help from each of us. And it always boils down to a single person, a single child, one by one.

Organizations and programs like these can help improve the outcomes – and outlook – for children born poor in America.

Thanks to Pam Hunt and Beth Dornan for their research and contributions to this story. – JH

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