Poverty trap keeps children poor, and a society poorer

Jeffrey Sachs says a society that invests generously in education and health for all children, rich and poor, is itself enriched, as Sweden shows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 1:24am

A country's economic success depends on the education, skills and health of its population. When its young people are healthy and well educated, they can find gainful employment, achieve dignity, and succeed in adjusting to the fluctuations of the global labour market. Yet many societies around the world do not meet the challenge of ensuring basic health and a decent education for each generation of children.

Some countries are simply too poor to provide decent schools. Parents themselves may lack adequate education, leaving them unable to help their own children beyond the first year or two of school, so that illiteracy and innumeracy are transmitted from one generation to the next.

Yet rich countries also fail. The United States, for example, cruelly allows its poorest children to suffer. Poor people live in poor neighborhoods with poor schools. Parents are often unemployed, ill, divorced, or even incarcerated. Children become trapped in a persistent generational cycle of poverty, despite the society's general affluence.

A remarkable new documentary film, The House I Live In, shows that America's story is even sadder and crueller than that, owing to disastrous policies. Starting around 40 years ago, America's politicians declared a "war on drugs", ostensibly to fight the use of addictive drugs like cocaine. As the film clearly shows, however, the war on drugs became a war on the poor, especially on poor minority groups.

What is crazy about this is that the US has missed the obvious point. To break the cycle of poverty, a country needs to invest in its children's future, not in the imprisonment of 2.3 million people a year, many for non-violent crimes that are symptoms of poverty.

The point is this: governments have a unique role to play to ensure that all young members of a generation have a chance.

This is the genius of "social democracy", the philosophy pioneered in Scandinavia but also deployed in many developing countries. The idea is simple and powerful: all people deserve a chance, and society needs to help everybody to secure that chance. Social investments are large, financed by high taxes, which rich people actually pay, rather than evade.

A poor child in Sweden has benefits from the start. The child's parents have guaranteed maternity/paternity leave to help them nurture the infant. The government then provides high-quality day care, enabling the mother - knowing that the child is in a safe environment - to return to work. The government ensures that all children have a place in preschool, so that they are ready for formal schooling by the age of six. And health care is universal, so the child can grow up healthy.

A comparison of the US and Sweden is revealing: the US has a poverty rate of 17.3 per cent, roughly twice Sweden's of 8.4 per cent.

One of the shocking realities in recent years is that America now has almost the lowest degree of social mobility of the high-income countries. Children born poor are likely to remain poor; children born into affluence are likely to be affluent adults. This inter-generational tracking amounts to a profound waste of human talents.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Copyright: Project Syndicate