The Star Tribune’s provocative Jan. 26 editorial, “Low-income kids are new normal,” was hardly a pleasant way to start the week. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves, was my first reaction. That slightly more than half of today’s public school children live in low-income households should be a wake-up call about this nation’s future. How can kids be expected to concentrate on learning if they are cold and hungry, or even worse, homeless? And how can parents help their kids with school work when they may be working two or three jobs themselves or are struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their kids’ heads?
The good news in the editorial was that an ordinary citizen in St. Paul was spurred to action by seeing kids shivering at a bus stop with a towel as the substitute for a warm jacket. This good citizen got her colleagues together and sought donations of winter jackets for kids. They got double the number of coats they requested. Citizen action can work wonders, but the need must be identified and dramatized.
Minnesota is doing better than most states. Only 38 percent of our students qualified for free or subsidized lunches in 2011. The provision of such lunches was the basis for the revelation that slightly over half of all students nationwide now live in low-income households.
But Minnesota’s doing better than average is small comfort. We compete nationally and even internationally for workers.
Rarely discussed but commonly assumed is that the first obligation of any society is to reproduce itself, and to educate and train its next generation of workers and citizens. Also assumed is that the major burden, both financial and physical, of producing the future workforce falls on those who choose to have children. It is a given — a free gift parents give to the rest of society. Public criticism of those deemed to be failing in producing good workers and citizens is also freely given.
Are parents ever thanked for this contribution to society? Worrying about college tuition and debt gets a great deal of attention. But in the United States, how often is it publicly acknowledged that raising kids is a very expensive endeavor?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture — which deals with food, not just farmers — has estimated that raising a child in a middle-income family to the age of 18 costs almost a quarter of a million dollars — $245,000 was estimated for children born in 2013, up about 2 percent over 2012. The study concedes that low-income rural families spend much less — $145,500, undoubtedly because they earn less and produce some of their family’s food. Individuals can get the estimated annual cost of raising a child in their particular geographic areas at www.cnpp.usda.gov/calculator (choose “Cost of Raising a Child Calculator.”)
Meanwhile, the Census Bureau recently revealed that the proportion of U.S. middle-income households is declining, lower-income households are increasing and our birthrate is below the traditional replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age. Other studies show that wages have stagnated — especially for men — since 1970.
Women of childbearing age — from teenagers to what formerly were called middle-aged women — know the world has changed. They have experienced the recent recession and know that if they want children, they have to help support them financially or, in a growing number of cases, support them alone. And every married woman or mother knows that when she’s asked socially “What do you do?”, the question refers to work outside the home for pay. Raising children and running a household don’t count as work. It’s an expected gift, and it had better be a good one. No wonder young people are delaying marriage and the birthrate is down.
According to a late 2013 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, births to older women — undoubtedly the more financially stable — are reaching record levels, while birthrates among women age 30 and younger are at record lows. Teenage mothers are far fewer, as that rate fell 10 percent in 2013. A Star Tribune article (“Baby bump is overdue for the state,” Dec. 6) worried that “if the birthrate keeps falling for all Minnesotans, that could pose economic challenges, as companies struggle to find workers.”
Parents and public schools cannot be expected to produce the healthy and educated future workforce alone. The nation could face the 21st-century dilemma of low family income and how it affects our future workforce the way that 20th-century citizens faced the problem of old-age poverty. Social Security was instituted, supported by mandatory contributions from both employers and employees. Senior discounts offered by businesses and other institutions followed, an indication of social appreciation for the costs of old age. It is time for similar creative thinking and action on behalf of parents and kids if we truly care about the future workforce.
Volunteers asking for donations of winter jackets won’t be enough.
Arvonne Fraser is a retired senior fellow from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the grandmother of seven.