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Poor Kids in a Rich Country

Poor Kids in a Rich Country: America's Children in Comparative Perspective

Lee Rainwater
Timothy M. Smeeding
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 280
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    Poor Kids in a Rich Country
    Book Description:

    InPoor Kids in a Rich Country, Lee Rainwater and Timothy Smeeding ask what it means to be poor in a prosperous nation - especially for any country's most vulnerable citizens, its children. In comparing the situation of American children in low-income families with their counterparts in fourteen other countries-including Western Europe, Australia, and Canada-they provide a powerful perspective on the dynamics of child poverty in the United States.

    Based on the rich data available from the transnational Luxembourg Income Study (LIS),Poor Kids in a Rich Countryputs child poverty in the United States in an international context. Rainwater and Smeeding find that while the child poverty rate in most countries has been relatively stable over the past 30 years, child poverty has increased markedly in the United States and Britain-two of the world's wealthiest countries. The book delves into the underlying reasons for this difference, examining the mix of earnings and government transfers, such as child allowances, sickness and maternity benefits, unemployment insurance, and other social assistance programs that go into the income packages available to both single- and dual-parent families in each country. Rainwater and Smeeding call for policies to make it easier for working parents to earn a decent living while raising their children-policies such as parental leave, childcare support, increased income supports for working poor families, and a more socially oriented education policy. They make a convincing argument that our definition of poverty should not be based solely on the official poverty line-that is, the minimum income needed to provide a certain level of consumption-but on the social and economic resources necessary for full participation in society.

    Combining a wealth of empirical data on international poverty levels with a thoughtful new analysis of how best to use that data,Poor Kids in a Rich Countrywill provide an essential tool for researchers and policymakers who make decisions about child and family policy.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-462-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. About the Authors
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction Taking the Definition of Poverty Seriously
    (pp. 1-14)

    For some forty years now, poverty has been a central and self-conscious concern in American society. The War on Poverty, officially launched in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, spawned a large research establishment and literature (Johnson 1964). As analysts have dug into this large issue, it has proved fruitful to investigate the special circumstances and dynamics of different groups of the poor, particularly the notably dependent populations of the elderly and children. This book is about the economic well-being of the latter group. It examines American children from a particular perspective, that of their fates in comparison with the...


    • Chapter 1 Child Poverty in Rich Countries in the 1990s: An Overview
      (pp. 17-31)

      It should be evident from the discussion in the introduction to this book that although poverty analyses make use of a poverty line, there is no hard and fast qualitative difference between being poor and not being poor. Participating meaningfully in one’s society is not an all-or-nothing ability. The contemporary social standards for what constitutes poverty or near-poverty or mainstream living are nodes along a continuum of affluence. When we use family income as an index of material well-being, we can conveniently rank people along a continuum from very low income to very high income. The poverty line, and our...

    • Chapter 2 Patterns of Child Economic Well-Being
      (pp. 32-48)

      The previous chapter outlined the broad picture of child poverty in the fifteen countries of interest. Now we can turn our attention to the need to understand poverty as one aspect of the overall inequality in economic well-being in a society. From the perspective of income distribution, we can think specifically in terms of income classes ranging from extreme poverty to great riches. The three income groupings described in chapter 1—high, middle, and marginal or low—can be subdivided more finely into seven income classes:

      High-income (more than one and a half times the median equivalent income)

      1. Very...

    • Chapter 3 Child Poverty and Population: Is Demography Destiny?
      (pp. 49-56)

      When Americans learn of the large differences in poverty rates among countries, many of them ask: To what extent are differences in poverty rates a reflection of differences in population characteristics? Perhaps different parental age structures across countries, for instance, affect children’s poverty rates. And surely different proportions of large and small families, differences in the number of adults in families, or differences in the number of employed family members would affect poverty figures. Most important, Americans tend to assume that differences in the proportion of families headed by a single woman would account for a significant share of the...

    • Chapter 4 Periods of Poverty: How Long Are Children Poor?
      (pp. 57-67)

      Cross-sectional poverty rates give us a snapshot of how many people are poor in a given year, but they do not tell us how long people have been poor or will remain so. Faced with a 20 percent child poverty rate in one country, we therefore cannot assume (although unconsciously we often do) that 20 percent of that country’s children have always been poor, or that 80 percent have always escaped poverty. We would have a much more complete understanding of cross-national inequality if we could supplement cross-national data with longitudinal data on the length of the periods of poverty...

    • Chapter 5 Income Packaging: Market Income and the State
      (pp. 68-78)

      Up to this point we have been discussing poverty and income distribution based on a single measure of income—total money (and near-cash) income minus taxes, adjusted for family size. Because we subtract taxes, we are also taking into account the effect of tax rates and tax expenditures on disposable income. In this and the next two chapters, we want to move on to a discussion of income packaging and child poverty. The term income packaging recognizes the fact that in most countries a family’s income is usually an aggregate from several different sources. An extremely detailed accounting of families’...

    • Chapter 6 Child Poverty and Income Packaging in Two-Parent Families
      (pp. 79-108)

      In this chapter, we look at the relation between various kinds of income packaging and child poverty rates in two-parent families in all of the fifteen countries. After a discussion of some demographic differences in poverty rates, we look in greater detail at different kinds of market and transfer income. We are then able to conclude the chapter with a country-by-country review of how income packaging affects the lives of that large majority of children who live in two-parent households.

      Table 6.1 shows the distribution of children in two-parent families by well-being categories. The differences among countries are not as...

    • Chapter 7 Child Poverty and Income Packaging in Single-Mother Families
      (pp. 109-131)

      In recent years all countries have given special policy attention to the economic vulnerability of children in single-mother families. Most single mothers are caught between their responsibilities as mothers and heads of families, on the one hand, and the need to earn money, on the other. In quite a number of countries there is additional concern that the proportion of children who live in single-mother families may be steadily rising. Such concern has been widespread in the United States, where the increase in single-mother families is perhaps most prominent, but it has also emerged in the United Kingdom and Sweden...

    • Chapter 8 Is There Hope for America’s Low-Income Children?
      (pp. 132-142)

      Despite high rates of economic growth and improvements in the standard of living in industrialized nations throughout the twentieth century, a significant percentage of American children are still living in families so poor that normal health and growth are at risk (Duncan et al. 1998; Duncan and Brooks-Gunn 1997a, b). The previous chapters have shown that it does not have to be this way: in many other countries child poverty afflicts only one-half to one-quarter as many children as in the United States.

      These numbers are startling and worrisome. For more affluent nations, child poverty is not a matter of...


    • Chapter 9 Establishing a Poverty Line
      (pp. 145-166)

      In this chapter, we review the rationale for a social conception of poverty rather than one that is narrowly economic, and we explore the implications of such a view for defining an overall level for a poverty line in terms of the kinds of measurement choices that have to be made.

      It has long been recognized (reference is usually made to Adam Smith or Karl Marx) that a society’s poverty is relative to its mainstream standard of living. Poverty is the absence of those necessities that allow citizens to participate in the mainstream. InThe Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith...

    • Chapter 10 Establishing Equivalent Family Income
      (pp. 167-182)

      In this chapter, we discuss the choices that must be made in order to adjust incomes for differences in family composition. Efforts to measure economic well-being require some adjustment of income to take account of need. How this is done can make a very great difference in whom we call poor and whom not poor, as well as in the proportion of people who are defined as poor. In the case of child poverty, different adjustments can alter the rate by as much as 50 percent for all children, and for children in larger families they can increase or decrease...

    • Chapter 11 Whence the Poverty Standard—Nations or Communities?
      (pp. 183-210)

      In previous chapters, we have assumed that in defining mainstream and poverty standards, the relevant community is the nation as a whole. Thus, we have defined the poverty line as one-half of a nation’s median equivalent income. But we have begged a question: What difference does it make for our understanding of poverty in a society if we focus not on the nation as a whole but on particular communities within the nation? In this chapter, we explore this question by considering possible variations in child poverty rates among the fifty states of the United States plus the District of...

  8. Appendix A The Luxembourg Income Study Project
    (pp. 211-212)
  9. Appendix B The U.S. State Database and Regional Combinations in Other Countries in the Luxembourg Income Study
    (pp. 213-215)
  10. Appendix C From Relative Income to Real Income
    (pp. 216-227)
  11. Appendix D Reweighting to Assess the Impact of Demography Versus Income Packaging
    (pp. 228-238)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 239-241)
  13. References
    (pp. 242-252)
  14. Index
    (pp. 253-263)