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You Were Born in the Wrong Country

The US does a terrible job of keeping its children out of poverty — especially compared to other industrialized nations.

Kevin Dooley / Flickr

America has a child poverty problem.

According to the latest data, 20 percent of US children live in families with incomes below 50 percent of the national median income. Compare that to Nordic countries, where the same number ranges from 3.6 percent to 6.7 percent.

Commonly, conservatives downplay the childhood poverty problem by invoking the “success sequence.” If people made the “right choices” — like not have children out of wedlock — their kids wouldn’t have to grow up below the poverty line.

But the truth is that even US children in two-parent families have much higher poverty rates than children in other developed countries. For instance, in 2013, the Finland two-parent child poverty rate was 2.2 percent. In the US, it was 12.6 percent. Only Canada ranks worse (though I suspect that has changed since the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit).

Another way to put this point is to say that high US child poverty is not so much driven by the “single-motherhood penalty” as it is by the “family penalty” or the “child-having penalty.” Across peer nations, the US dedicates the lowest amount of GDP to public family benefits like paid leave, child care, and child allowances.

On top of family benefits, other nations also provide better unemployment benefits, better health insurance benefits, better housing benefits, and better disability benefits. All of these programs help keep many children afloat.

The US is a dubious outlier in another way. If you break children into three broad classes, as I do in the graph below, you see something very striking about the American distribution relative to the distributions that obtain in the Nordic countries.

In the Nordic countries, they have relatively few children in the lower class (and even fewer in the extreme lower class). They also have relatively few children in the upper class. But they have big middle classes. Around 65 percent of children in those countries have incomes that are 150 percent to 300 percent of the poverty line, which is equivalent to 75 percent to 150 percent of the median income.

In the US, on the other hand, there is a big lower class that is even larger than the middle class (so defined). And then there is also a relatively large group of children with incomes well above the US median, i.e. rich kids. While the Nordic distribution looks like a bell curve with the overwhelming majority of kids clustered near the middle, the American distribution is a pyramid.

If you want to fix this bizarre distribution — and attack the scourge that is child poverty — the way forward is pretty simple. Levy much higher taxes, especially on the rich, and use the revenues to fund universal social-democratic programs. Implement free or subsidized child care, free health care, paid leave, and a child allowance.

Under the present system, too many children are consigned to poverty simply because they were born in the wrong family — or, perhaps more accurately, the wrong country. As long as the US continues to distribute income the way it does, it will continue to struggle with high child poverty.