Indicators Hide Problems Of Poor Children

May 18, 1998

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Many people are unaware of the hardships suffered by families in the bottom rungs of society because conventional economic barometers paint rosy economic pictures that mask their plight, says a national authority on child welfare from Cornell University.

"Poverty is social quicksand, swallowing up whole communities," says James Garbarino, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. "Even though average income rose 15 percent and the GNP grew by an average of 2 percent a year in the 1980s, income for the lower 40 percent of Americans declined and child poverty doubled during that decade," Garbarino writes in a new special issue of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America titled "Stress in Children" (1998: Vol. 7 [1]).

Children in poverty are at far greater risk for suffering from some form of physical, psychological or social pathology, he says.

"Poor children tend to live in socially toxic environments that generate multiple threats to their development, such as academic failure, child maltreatment, learning disabilities and greater likelihood of being exposed to chemical and radioactive waste and polluted air and water, among other problems," Garbarino writes. "Being poor, to children, also means being left out -- left out of the mainstream economy of cash, credit and the like -- and being tied up in feelings of shame and humiliation because of financial failure."

Such shame can lead to violence by creating situations in which young people feel threatened with psychic annihilation, he says. "So threatened, these individuals and groups respond with violence to even the slightest provocation, because violence gives them a sense of being that they often lack amidst the exploitation and humiliation of their lives," says Garbarino.

"While many economic indicators show an improved economy, the risks of poverty to children have intensified in recent years, and we can't expect child welfare services to compensate for our society's deteriorating foundations and clean up the mess of social toxicity," writes Garbarino.

Garbarino is the co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell, an interdisciplinary unit with the mandate to help prevent family stress and with an emphasis on abuse prevention. It sponsors a variety of programs to identify, reduce and prevent child maltreatment, including trainings, demonstration projects and research. He is the author of Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment (Jossey-Bass, 1996), which warns that "our socially toxic society is raising nastier children and teenagers who are at ever greater risk for perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and violence."

Compared with other countries, the United States lags far behind basic elements of a modern social welfare state, Garbarino says. He notes that this country has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor among industrialized nations and unlike most of Western Europe does not have universal access to health care or maternal and infant health care, an adequate minimum wage or direct child subsidies.

Garbarino calls for reducing inequality, for an agenda that will shield children from the effects of poverty and, finally, for measures to ensure adequate income and employment. "A body of research shows that the degree of economic inequality is linked with rates of violence," he says.

"The United States suffers from many forms of injustice that spawn shame and ultimately social toxicity," he warns. To build social justice and "detoxify" our society for children, he says, the country must take "public action to uproot racism, to teach families how to value their children and to teach non-aggressive ethnic pride based on knowledge of each group's contributions to civilization."

Garbarino is also the author or editor of 17 books, including Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment, Children and Families in the Social Environment, Let's Talk About Living in a World with Violence, Children in Danger: Coping with the Consequences of Community Violence and Towards a Sustainable Society: An Economic, Social, and Environmental Agenda for Our Children's Future. He is also the author or co-author of more than 100 scientific articles or chapters on child maltreatment and child welfare, child development, schools and instructional materials.

Cornell University

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