by Jeff Madrick
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
The author presents very clearly the disaster of childhood poverty. He gives us
the overarching consideration about what we should do as responsible and
respectful citizens. He gives us plenty of information to make some decent
choices for a more merciful and caring society. We have seen through the
pandemic that people really want to help others in need such as the hospital
workers, grocery store workers and all those that have as their goal the assistance
of others. In 1962, Michael Harrington published his groundbreaking exposé on
poverty, “The Other America,” which helped awaken the country to the scourge of
poverty. Yet after six decades, the paradox of poverty amid plenty remains. This
disturbing fact serves as the starting point for Jeff Madrick’s book “Invisible
Americans: the cost of Childhood Poverty”. Madrick’s goal is to reveal the
conditions, causes and costs of poverty, specifically childhood poverty. His
underlying assumption is that if we as a nation truly understood the tragic toll of
child poverty, we would act decisively to alleviate it.
Madrick rightly points out that the United States has the highest rates of child
poverty and deprivation among the wealthy countries in the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development. Why should this be? Although many
possible reasons exist, one particularly powerful set of factors is that the nation
has often viewed the poor as undeserving of assistance. This conviction has taken
many forms. One argument is that the poor do not work hard enough and/or
have made bad decisions in life. A second is that the poor are caught in a “culture
of poverty,” in which single parenthood and crime predominate. Yet another set
of beliefs imagines most of the poor to be nonwhite and living off welfare. In all
these cases, the poverty-stricken are disdained as undeserving of compassion or
assistance. They are the ones responsible for their own fate and therefore must
accept the consequences.
Madrick marshals a vast array of social scientific research to show that each of
these beliefs is clearly incorrect. In addition, he describes the human and societal
toll that child poverty produces. For example, he points to a study I undertook
along with Michael McLaughlin of Washington University in St. Louis showing
that childhood poverty costs the United States approximately $1 trillion a year in
increased medical and criminal-justice costs, along with lower economic
Furthermore, Madrick correctly argues that much of American poverty is a result
of failings at a structural rather than an individual level. This includes a lack of
decent-paying jobs, a shortage of affordable child and health care, a shredded
safety net, and so on. To use an analogy, we have focused our attention on who
loses the game, rather than why the game produces losers in the first place.
What then is the answer? Madrick argues that the most straightforward and
effective way to significantly reduce child poverty is through a cash allowance
available to all children. The idea is similar to a universal basic income, a concept
being discussed in progressive circles. Every child would be guaranteed an
income that would be paid to their parents, perhaps $300 to $400 a month.
Through such payments, Madrick argues, child poverty could be cut in half. Many
Western industrialized countries have adopted similar policies, lowering their
poverty rates as a result.
Overall, “Invisible Americans” does an excellent job pulling together and
synthesizing the latest research on the dynamics of child poverty in the United
States. It is a clarion call to address this most unjust blight upon the American
landscape. Madrick has provided a valuable service in presenting a highly
readable and cogent argument for change.
What if factual evidence and arguments do not change hearts and minds? This
book’s method is to provide well-reasoned arguments based on the best available
research. Most policy analysts would strongly argue that we should be guided by
such an approach.
However, it is possible that the myths and misguided beliefs about poverty
benefit many of us, particularly those with influence, which contributes to their
staying power. Clearly the myths surrounding the “welfare freeloader” have been
used by political leaders from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump to
further their careers. Likewise, race has been used strategically by Southern
politicians to divide poor blacks and whites, keeping them from seeing their
common economic interests.
Moreover, such myths let those who are not poor off the hook. “Why should I give
up my hard-earned tax dollars to someone who is not willing to work hard?” is a
frequent refrain. As President Trump remarked at a rally in St. Charles, Mo., two
years ago, “But welfare reform — I see it and I’ve talked to people. I know people,
they work three jobs, and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And
the person who’s not working at all, and has no intention of working at all, is
making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her
ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.” The crowd in
attendance roared its approval. Such attitudes are unlikely to be moved by
arguing for providing poor children and their parents with a monthly cash
stipend, whether working or not.
And yet, as we have seen over the past decade, a shift in our understanding and
response to economic inequality may be in the air. Ultimately poverty affects us
all. Grass-roots groups across the country have been organizing and working to
fundamentally change the conditions that disenfranchise so many Americans,
poor and non-poor alike. They would do well to use “Invisible Americans” as a
launching point. It will greatly effect/affect us as we return after the pandemic.