I went to Cherokee to explore the idea of a “universal basic income,” which is a fancy way of saying something that’s really quite simple: Give everyone cash, just for existing. The goal, according to proponents of such a policy, is to alleviate, if not eliminate, the scourge of poverty. And, more importantly, to reduce the social illspoor health, poor educational attainment, poor job prospects and higher odds of ending up in jailassociated with kids who grow up poor.
The difference between the poor and the non-poor, according to basic income supporters (and basic logic), is just money. Give poor people more of it, and they’ll be better off.
These topics are of particular interest to me because readers of this website voted for me to cover child poverty as part of my Change the List project. In the interactive story “The poor kids of Silicon Valley,” I explored the incredible scope of childhood poverty in this rich country. I was surprised to learn that census data show one in five American kids is poor. The United States, according to UNICEF, actually has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world. Only Romania fares worse on that measure.
Not even Silicon Valley — home to Facebook, Google and Apple, which is building a new campus that looks like a damn spaceship — is immune. A third of kids there — in this epicenter of wealth and prosperity — are at risk for hunger, meaning their families can’t pay all of their bills and may have to cut back on food to make it through the month, according to Caitlin Kerk, spokeswoman for the Second Harvest Food Bank.
“This is the moral shame of our community,” San Jose’s mayor, Sam Liccardo, told me.
This level of poverty among society’s most vulnerable people, as the Children’s Defense Fund and others have argued, is both immoral and expensive. Children obviously cannot choose their parents’ salaries. We can’t blame poverty on them, and yet they are statistically the group most likely to be poor in modern America. They also bear its costs most directly. The outcomes of their lives, even the chemistry of their brains, literally can be shaped by it. The rest of us pick up the tab, too. Child poverty costs the United States $500 billion per year, according to University of Chicago research. That includes lost earnings as well as health care and the cost of crime.
What’s most important, from my perspective, is that we do something — and something big — to combat the scourge of child poverty. There are viable solutions, and the universal basic income should be a front-running candidate. Other ideas to be considered — and which could reduce child poverty by 60% — are deftly presented in a recent Children’s Defense Report titled “Ending Child Poverty Now.” I dissect some of the report’s ideas in my Change the List story.
The broader point is this: It doesn’t have to be this way.
We live in one of the richest countries on Earth.
We can’t afford to let our children grow up poor.
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