By Juan Williams - 12/19/11 10:15 AM EST
Imagine Baby Jesus as an American child this Christmas.
Odds are he’d be a poor person. Poverty is now epidemic among America’s children, and getting worse. Yet none of the presidential candidates, and neither the Republican majority in the House nor the Democrats in the Senate and White House is engaging the issue in any meaningful way.
As Christmas sermons and carols appeal for love and compassion, there is an open window on poverty thanks to census data released last month.
To repeat, by any measure, about half of America’s children live in poverty or painfully close to poverty. This is a radical fact that speaks to growing economic inequality. It amounts to a scary warning of possible social unrest.
The official poverty level for all Americans is 15 percent; 22 percent for children, the highest since 1993. But according to an analysis by The Associated Press, when people living near the poverty line — defined as people earning less than $22,278 annually for an individual and $44,628 for a family of four — are included, 48 percent of Americans currently live in or near poverty.
The Census Bureau reports that 29 percent of white children are considered in or near poverty, along with 64 percent of black children and 65 percent of Hispanic children. There is a link between poverty and a rising number of out-of-wedlock babies born every year, with 24 percent, 38 percent and 42 percent of white, black and Hispanic woman-headed families, respectively, living in poverty. These harsh facts are an ugly consequence of American family breakdown and political inertia in a time of congressional fights for political advantage over budgets and tax breaks.
Given the Republican intransigence to countenance higher taxes for people who earn more than $1 million annually, last week’s congressional debate on the payroll-tax cut turned into a discussion about cutting spending to pay for the tax break. The cuts under consideration included limits on unemployment benefits, reducing entitlement spending on poverty programs and freezing federal pay.
“If Congress and the states make further cuts we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years,” Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan professor who studies poverty programs, told The AP.
As if on cue, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported last week that in a survey of 29 cities they found a rise in demand for food stamps and the WIC program, which gives aid to low-income women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and/or have children younger than 5.
The only American politician talking about children and poverty this Christmas is former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga).
In a speech at Harvard earlier this month, Gingrich decried child labor laws as “truly stupid” because they restrict jobs for kids under the age of 16. He suggested that one way for children to escape poverty might be to make them janitors in their public schools.
Gingrich argued: “I will tell you personally, I believe the kids could mop the floor and clean out the bathroom and get paid for it and it would be OK.”
In the face of criticism, Gingrich doubled down on his idea: “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works.”
I wrote a book, “Enough,” calling for civil rights leaders to deliver a positive, can-do message about the power of taking personal responsibility to the black community. But Gingrich is wrong to suggest laziness and poor values are the whole problem for low-income children of any color.
The number of families in which someone has a job and yet the family remains in or near poverty has gone up for the last three years to 31 percent of the nation. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 83 percent of all poor children live in households where at least one adult works. Very often, their parents are working two or three jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table. Often low-wage jobs offer little or no benefits.
It has long been true that a child with a high school diploma and a job who marries before having children of his or her own is almost certain to avoid poverty. But poor schools and a scarcity of jobs now combine to depress the odds, making the poor feel disconnected from people with education and opportunity, their government and their country.
It has long been said that change in politics is easy to talk about but difficult to bring about. Changing political indifference to poverty this Christmas is at the heart of America’s effort to love the child in us all — Baby Jesus.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.