Marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional” War on Poverty, President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night revisits the issue of poverty only three times.  But he said — after first citing the current unemployment five-year low — inequality has undoubtedly intensified.

Official White House photo
Official White House photo

Between 2000 and 2012, Americans living beneath the poverty line grew from 12 percent to nearly 16 percent.  Even though the economy slowly but steadily stabilized after the recession, socioeconomic disparities remain rampant, and children especially are vulnerable to quality of life deficiencies.

“The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead,” Obama said Tuesday night. “And too many still aren’t working at all.”

That’s certainly the case for many Chicago’s urban communities, where poverty rates are higher than the national average. According to the Heartland Social Impact Research Center’s latest compilation of census data, Chicago’s poverty rate is 23.9 percent — 3.4 percent higher than it was in 2007. And those in “extreme poverty,” considered to be anyone living below 50 percent of the poverty threshold, comprised 0.6 percent of the city’s population in 2012.

Amid declining household incomes, children are notably affected. In 2012, 34.3 percent of all school-age children in Chicago lived in poverty.

“The War on Poverty was a real success,” said David Whittaker, the executive director of the Chicago Area Project.  “It opened doors and gave people opportunities in jobs, training and other services but unfortunately, these programs were simply not continued.”

Among the myriad of welfare programs terminated since the 1970s, one area of social development lacking in federal funding in recent years is the investment in low-income youths — namely opportunities for their employment.

On Jan. 17, the Alternative Schools Network and the Chicago Area Project, along with five other Chicagoland non-profit organizations, released a study that found teens — especially low-income, minority males — have seen “severe declines” in employment rates: the national teen employment rate is 27 percent, compared to Chicago’s 19 percent. Among 16- to 19-year-old poor black teens, only 6 percent are employed.

Considering the prevalence of child poverty, teen unemployment can be just as consequential as overall unemployment, which in Chicago fares 3.6 percent higher than the national rate, which is 10.9 percent.

“In neighborhoods like Englewood and Roseland, teen unemployment has tremendously negative consequences on not only the life of teens but also families and whole communities,” Whittaker said. “The money that teens receive becomes part of what the family uses for survival, not for the luxury of electronic toys and whatnot.”

Teen employment also helps youths better prepare for the real world and future job opportunities, said Jack Wuest, executive director of Alternative Schools Network.

“It conditions them to get to work on time, follow instructions and help out their families,” he said.

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Wuest commends the Illinois state legislature’s past efforts in ensuring summer employment for low-income youths, but the opportunities are declining.

Last summer, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Richard Miller, D-Cal., introduced a bill that would subsidize jobs for the low-income, unemployed people and create part-time jobs for low-income youths. But the bill, the Pathways Back to Work Act, remains stalled in committee.

Whittaker said the situation is more nuanced than just federal policy.

“You have to look at the bigger picture, which is that historically, Chicago had many small businesses in these neighborhoods to support kids and their families but have now moved away,” he said. “And then there is another layer: racism and discrimination.”

The empirical data matches up. According to the report, minority young adults are more likely to be out of school and unemployed than their white counterparts. Black 20- to 24-year-olds are 5.5 times more likely to be disconnected from school than their white, non-Hispanic peers.

Wuest adds that greater economic stimulation couldn’t hurt either — “increasing the federal minimum wage would be a first step,” he said. It would be that, and education.

In October, a Northwestern University research project found that children’s literacy and cognitive abilities are directly linked to their mothers’ educational background. With the latter factor representing socioeconomic status, researchers found that low-income ninth graders were less capable of processing auditory information than students whose mothers achieved higher education degrees. The clear discrepancy in the results proves that poverty has profound effects on auditory skills and learning ability.

If poverty does have a biological impact on cognitive development, the future of some 207,000 impoverished kids in Chicago Public Schools is at risk.

But Nina Kraus, one of the three authors of the NU study, said literacy impairment can be reversed — her research demonstrates it. In controlled experiments, Kraus proved that certain auditory training could improve the “neural encoding of speech.”

“Certain training methods, like music, can really enhance the [biological impairments],” Kraus said. “Education is absolutely a factor.”

Both Wuest and Whittaker echo this last point of education.

“The ideal situation would involve two areas from which kids could learn: one, part-time employment, and two, school and other educational programs,” Wuest said.  “They’re both processes of socialization that will help kids later on in life.”

Obama concluded his State of the Union address by calling on Americans to think of “the America we want for our kids.” He spoke of the importance of opportunities in higher education, and even more so, early childhood education.

Original War on Poverty initiatives that still exist today are few and far between.

“The government has always had a moral obligation to provide opportunities for citizens to contribute,” Whittaker said.  “It just has to be committed again.”

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