Book Review: American Children in Chronic Poverty

American Children in Chronic Poverty:  Complex Risks, Benefit-Cost Analyses, and Untangling the Knot  

By Cynthia E. Lamy

New York:  Lexington Books, 2012
208 pages; hardback and e-book

* Review by Lawrence E. McCullough
   Hall Institute of Public Policy-NJ


“Peter,” I said. “Your ideas are wonderful, but how do we get them to the man in the street?”

“Très simplement, cher Dor-o-tee,” he replied. “If you want to reach the man in the street, you go to the man in the street.”     

—  Dorothy Day (1897-1981), founder of The Catholic Worker


a permanent, widespread condition of life in our America?

Recent census reports shed light on a state of diminished existence so persistent that with 40% of U.S. jobs currently classified as low-income, it’s estimated that one-half of all Americans will live in poverty some time before they reach age 65. 1

It’s a rate of impoverishment higher than any other developed nation in the world.

A new book by New Jersey social scientist Cynthia E. Lamy believes there is not only light at the end of the tunnel but enough bright spots along the way to guide policy makers forward.

Ms. Lamy is a Senior Fellow at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and Metrics Manager at the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York City non-profit that last year granted nearly $150 million to 200 anti-poverty agencies.

American Children in Chronic Poverty: Complex Risks, Benefit-Cost Analyses, and Untangling the Knot offers a refreshingly holistic and person-centered approach to a problem often analyzed in fragmented, de-personalized fashion with a correspondingly uneven rate of success.

She spends the first 1/3 of the book
detailing the galaxy of economic obstacles faced by the working and non-working poor on a daily basis. Mixing statistics and research with vignettes from the perspective of children and families, Lamy examines the poverty-sustaining impact of “risk conglomerates” — the process by which a wide-ranging set of seemingly minor factors conspire to situate Americans in poverty and keep them there, especially thwarting efforts of poor children to rise by their mythic bootstraps.

Says Lamy, “When risks collide, they intertwine and strengthen and cause the very difficult social problems we see in areas of concentrated poverty to become super-problems.” 2

Poverty, she asserts, “is a complex, multilayered problem that must be addressed with multiple, interdisciplinary approaches… while it is instructive, even essential, to pull apart the strands making up the overall poverty knot and learn how each piece works separately, this is not the way poverty works in reality, and we cannot solve it that way. This piecemeal approach to the problems of people in poverty is one of our most costly mistakes.” 3

The book’s second section
focuses on untangling the knot, i.e. exploring poverty interventions that have worked.

It’s not rocket science, Lamy maintains; it starts with having our leaders commit to the basic principle of ensuring all Americans have access to proper housing, medicine, food and education. 

And it continues with putting in daily practice results-oriented policies based on fundamental common-sense ideas such as work should pay a living wagemore low-wage, low-skilled workers should be enrolled in comprehensive job training programsmarriage should be encouraged, childbirth delayedK-12 schools need  common curricula and testing standardspublic housing should build not weaken community.

The payoff, she claims,
will ripple through every part of American public life. “By untangling children from the knot of poverty, we not only improve their lives, but the lives of everyone around them, and we produce benefits that considerably exceed the costs, benefits that in large part return to everyone … benefit-cost analysis confirms that when we truly respect and care for the most vulnerable members of our society, we create a strong, successful society in which everyone prospers.” 4

Yet a recent Urban Institute study noted that the U.S. federal government annually spends 10% of discretionary income on children compared to 20% on defense. Notes Washington Post writer Ezra Klein, “under current policies, the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments than on children, beginning in 2017." 5

Lamy believes this is a spending trend that needs to be reversed.

“Young people brought up in poverty have already been entangled in risk,” she states. “A more efficient way of dealing with the risks of poverty is to start before a long personal history of risk can do damage — in other words to start with young children.” 6

It’s a strategy finally gaining traction
with high-level politicians and the media.

In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, President Obama reminded the country that caring for our children is “our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. Surely we can do better.”   

Better begins with coordinating our economic and planning resources at every government level to implement policies and programs that give all American children as much help as possible in starting their lives.

The President’s State of the Union address
emphasized the critical need to provide preschool education to every 3- and 4-year-old in America — not just because it speaks to the inherent fairness for which America stands, but because any hope the nation has of maintaining competitiveness in the global economy depends entirely on a highly-educated workforce throughout the social strata.

It’s reasonable to assume that White House policy staff are rapidly trying to get up to speed on the issue.

American Children in Chronic Poverty is at the top of their reading list.
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[1] Transitioning In and Out of Poverty by Signe-Mary McKernan, Caroline Ratcliffe, and Stephanie R. Cellini. Washington, DC:  The Urban Institute, 2009.

[3]  Ibid., p. 168.

[4]  Ibid., p. 185.

[5] “Feds spend $7 on elderly for every $1 on kids” by Ezra Klein. Washington Post, Feb 15, 2013.

[6]  Ibid., p. 79.