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Generational Theft

UNICEF Child Poverty Report, Table 1b (click to enlarge)

Before I get to a recent report issued by UNICEF on childhood poverty around the globe (PDF), I’d like to provide a little perspective.

On Face the Nation back in February 2009 Senator and 2008 Presidential candidate John McCain described the legislation that would become the successful American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 “generational theft” and could not support the bill because of the debt it would create for future generations of Americans. The term has since been thrown around by many self-described fiscal conservatives, claiming that the stimulus bill and other fiscal policies set forth by the Obama Administration that lavishly shower undeserving moochers with unnecessary pork will saddle the next generation with the credit card bill.

Despite the $288 billion in tax incentives for individuals and corporations, $105.3 billion in infrastructure investments and other economic perks for the anemic economy in the Act, the convenient charge of larceny has stuck. It’s worth noting that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the stimulus bill has created up to 1.9 million jobs during the first quarter of 2012 alone. I dare say the net benefits will prove the Act to be self-amortizing, especially for shorter term tranches.

Real generational theft has real and tangible effects, not imaginary ones that will affect straw boys and straw girls. Those of the tangible variety have been identified by a new report put out by UNICEF Measuring Child Poverty. To the extent that we can quantify suffering, the indicators are absolutely painful.

The first table shows the percentage of children within a given country that lack basic necessities like “three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables, two pairs of properly fitting shoes.” This is the one that really grabbed me: “the opportunity from time to time to invite friends home to play and eat”.

The next table in the report shows the percentage of children who are living in relative poverty, defined as living in a household in which disposable income, when adjusted for family size and composition, is less than 50% of the national median income. The United States is ranked second to the bottom, at 23.1 percent.

Overall, 30 million children in 35 countries are found to be living in poverty and the United States is ranked second highest as measured in th preceding table at 23.1 percent.

Further in the report, the term “real” poverty is discussed. Real poverty, it is said, means lacking basics – enough food to eat, adequate clothing, a dry home, an indoor toilet, hot water, and a bed to sleep in. Once you leave such basics behind and start drawing poverty lines based on statistical notions like median income, it is argued, you end up with results that fail to make intuitive sense and so fail to convince either politicians or public.

The skeptics argue that “relative” poverty becomes an abstract moving target, subject to the whims of the stock market, consumer confidence, the last generation and the Jones next door. In the spirit of no child left behind, there’s an element of truth in that. But that’s the only way we can measure poverty. It’s always in relation to a frame of reference that gives us perspective. I would add that measuring against the Jones next door in terms of a given “perk” like having an occasional friend over to play with and have dinner with is certainly relative but also a very tangible experience in wellbeing.

Enter the FY2013 House budget proposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. Ryan claims that his proposed blue print of generational deprivation will “preempt austerity.” Apparently in Mr. Ryan’s world down is up and black is white. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan described it by saying, “It would likely produce the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history and likely increase poverty and inequality more than any other budget in recent times (and possibly in the nation’s history)”.

Adding insult to injury, the House Ways and Means Committee recently voted on April 18 to eliminate the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). This funding helps states meet the specialized needs of their most vulnerable populations, primarily low- and moderate-income children and people who are elderly or disabled.

In the meantime, the next generation, yes, the one that we’re being accused of stealing from through economic stimuli like ARRA and TARP that prevented another Great Depression is being deprived of 3 meals a day, fruits, vegetables and an internet connection for lack of “relative” wealth. Certain members of Congress propose to increase that deprivation. Is this not generational theft from the next cohort of Americans that will need every amount of human capital to contribute meaningfully to our country and the world?

Do we ever consider data like these when proposing budgets for programs that are supposed to address the social challenges that meet Americans, especially our current and next generation of children? I think we know the answer.

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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.