Whitney Houston once famously sang, “I believe the children are our future,” and as cheesy as that line may seem, it’s the plain truth. But what does it mean for our future if the children are poor, sickly, and uneducated? According to the Guttmacher Institute, birthrates — mostly unintended pregnancies — for women living in poverty are increasing while fertility rates among wealthier, more educated women are decreasing. This means that increasingly, America will be populated by those born into circumstances that statistically place them at risk. What, then, do we do about our future?
Older, wealthier, women with high educational attainment are choosing to delay pregnancy, forego it altogether, or are discouraged from having a family because of unsupportive leave policies at work. No matter the reason, women like myself are not contributing to the next generation of Americans who will become our workforce, our leaders, and our caretakers. Younger, poor women of color, on the other hand, are having unplanned births at six times the rate of their aforementioned counterparts, thereby parenting our future. Allow me to tell you why you should be worried about this.
Let’s be clear that this isn’t about the “right” type of people having children. When we start to say who is worthy of parenting and who is not because of how much money they make or their level of education, we’re on a slippery slope inevitably leads to race, ethnicity, immigration status, etc. as bases for who is fit to parent. That, my friends, is called Eugenics and you can refer to Adolf Hitler’s “master race” project to learn all about it. No, this is about what happens to children born into poverty and what we aren’t doing to support them.
Children born into poverty, especially long-term, cyclic poverty, are more likely to face impediments to their cognitive development and their ability to learn. Poverty can contribute to behavioral, social, and emotional problems, as well as cause and exacerbate poor child health, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. As these children grow, they may continue to feel the effects of poverty working on their lives including dropping out of school, experiencing poor adolescent and adult health, and poor employment outcomes.
I myself am a child of poverty and was fortunate to escape many of the pitfalls that await children in similar circumstances. I also grew up decades ago when America’s financial outlook wasn’t so bleak. In these turbulent economic times, federal and state governments are trying to trim budgets and unfortunately, our social safety net is usually the first to go. The WIC program, childcare subsidies, Medicaid, work training programs, unemployment assistance, and more essential programs are being cut or reduced across the country. While you may not directly benefit from these programs, their existence can help improve outcomes for poor families, which subsequently result in positive outcomes for us all.
Therefore, we ought to support policies that help the women and families responsible for America’s future. This means committing to increased access to education, supporting the overhaul of our healthcare system, advocating for an increased minimum wage, creating jobs and providing the necessary training, expanding family tax credits, providing subsidies for childcare, and making it easier for moms and dads to take time off from work.
Facing the reality of more and more children being born into poverty to parents who are young, lack education, and likely born into poverty themselves, it’s imperative that we think about how to support them. Otherwise, who will take care of us when we’re old? Who will keep things running when we’re gone? What kind of legacy do we plan to leave when it’s all said and done?