LOS ANGELES – Although researchers have consistently confirmed the link between childhood poverty and school performance, it’s still distressing to learn where nations rank in the lineup. The latest UNICEF report is a case in point.
“Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries” placed Japan 34th out of 41 countries. Yet it was hardly news. According to the OECD, 1 in 6 children in Japan was living in poverty in 2015, the highest level since records began in 1985. For children living in single-parent homes, the ratio was 54.6 percent.
Both reports mean that Japan’s economy will be unavoidably impacted. Children from low-income backgrounds drop out of school and find themselves employed in minimum-wage jobs at a far higher rate than their more advantaged peers.
Japan’s rapidly aging population and diminishing workforce translate into the loss of about ¥96 million per person in lifetime taxes and welfare payments. Japan already has about 2.2 million welfare recipients, an increase from 1.07 million in 2000. If the trend continues, the consequences will be dire at a time when international competition will only intensify.
The situation in the United States is not that different, although it ranked 30th in the UNICEF report. More than 1 of every 5 children was living below the federal poverty line at last count, bringing the total to 10.9 million children — or 21 percent of the entire school-age population. That represented a 6 percent increase since 2000.
Childhood poverty rates rose for every racial group, ranging from 39 percent for blacks to 13 percent for Asians and whites. The South had the highest rate at 23 percent, followed by the West at 21 percent, the Midwest at 19 percent and the Northeast at 18 percent.
Those born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income ladder stay below the middle as adults, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Economic Mobility Project.
Yet there is more to the story in Japan and the U.S. than initially meets the eye. The usual way to measure poverty is by looking at cash income only. The problem is that such an approach does not take into account the many programs that help the poor.
Japan’s poverty rate is distorted by the record-high number of people receiving entitlement benefits. For a country with a population about a third of that in the U.S., the 2.2 million or so on welfare is significant. Nevertheless, when adjusted, it would amount to less than the food stamp recipients of just California and New York alone.
The poverty rate in the U.S. is likewise deceptive. Food stamps make a difference. Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it was placed into nationwide use in the 1960s. Every dollar of SNAP spent on food frees up a dollar for rent, utilities or other basic needs.
Then there is the earned-income tax credit that offers low-income families with children about $3,000 a year. When these tax refunds are factored in, they reduce the number of those in poverty by about 5.5 million people.
Once government transfers are included, the U.S. poverty rate is actually lower than the United Kingdom’s, about the same as Germany’s, and just barely higher than Finland’s, according to a study by Education Next. The finding calls into question the belief that absolute poverty rates are the sole consideration in determining student performance.
None of this minimizes the effects of childhood poverty on school performance and the overall economy. But it does indicate that the issue is more nuanced than widely believed and worthy of further debate.
Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.
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