With millions of children in America living below the poverty line, the job of social workers is vital to helping them achieve a better future.
The latest findings on income and poverty in America paint a grim picture: 43.1 million people (13.5 percent of the population) are living in poverty, including 14.5 million (19.7 percent) children under the age of 18. In 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food-insecure households.
Worse yet is that these statistics are based on the federal poverty threshold, a measurement that, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty(NCCP), has been shown to underestimate families’ needs.
The NCCP’s research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 42 percent of American children are living in low-income families.
How Poverty Affects Children
A 2015 study by the Urban Institute uncovered a shocking fact: almost 4 in 10 American children will spend at least one year in poverty by the time they turn 18.
Senior fellow and economist Caroline Ratcliffe, who conducted the study, told CBS News that while they already knew families can cycle in and out of poverty, the researchers were surprised by just how high the numbers were.
She added that time spent living in poverty can have long-term damaging effects on young people. Notably, they are less likely than their peers to achieve milestones that are indicative of future success, including graduating from high school, enrolling in and attending college and consistent employment. These effects can be seen even when children have only spent one year of their childhood in poverty.
Children who are what is dubbed “persistently poor,” meaning they have lived below the federal poverty line for at least half of their childhood, are 13 percent less likely to complete high school and 43 percent less likely to complete college than those who experienced shorter-term poverty. By race, African-American children are the most affected, with 4 out of 10 enduring extended poverty.
“There is a cost to poverty,” says Ratcliffe. “When children don’t do well and succeed, this ripples through to the next generation. We can pay for the cost of this today via investment or we can pay later with increased costs as these children move down the road and aren’t successful.”
How Social Workers Help
Social workers play a vital role in helping people who are living in poverty. Social work and services can help mitigate many of the worst effects of poverty and set up young people for a more positive future.
The roles that social workers play in helping young people in poor communities are many and varied – from helping a family to obtain the most basic human needs of food, shelter and clothing to advocating for the most vulnerable like people with disabilities or mental health illnesses and their children.
Social workers provide people living in poverty with essential social services, including healthcare, childcare, and education. They take political action that improves public policy, as well as societal attitudes toward the poor. They support programs that work to promote better economic outcomes for children and their families and often work directly with elected officials to improve the services available.
They also engage in other forms of community outreach and action, such as organizing protests or coordinating fundraisers. Many social workers also volunteer their time at organizations like Feeding America, which helps individuals facing childhood poverty.
As a social worker, how have you helped children struggling with poverty in your care?
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