Two studies released this month point to a troubling demographic shift that puts the American dream out of reach for an increasing number of U.S. citizens, especially children.
The Southern Education Foundation found that, for the first time in 40 years, the majority of public school students in 13 southern and four western states are living at poverty levels.
"We've had very slow economic growth, and particularly falling real wages for workers with less experience and less education for more than 30 years. So, this is a long trend in the making," said Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation.
Another study by the group Opportunity Nation found that one in seven young adults between the ages of 16-24 is "disconnected" -- meaning neither in school, nor working.
"We have too many kids who graduate from high school who are not well-educated, they're not good in reading, they're not good in their numbers and they're not prepared to learn a lot more that a company would want them to learn in order for them to work for that company," said Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.
The poverty rates cited in the two studies are, alone, disconcerting. But they are also often associated with a tangle of other socioeconomic factors that make for an even dimmer future, none more complex than the proliferation of single-parent families.
That demographic shift was first noted in 1965, when then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan produced his controversial report, "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action." Since then, single parenthood (by choice, not divorce) has largely been mainstreamed through the American culture and across races. About 70 percent of African-American children are born to single mothers, as are almost 50 percent of Hispanic children, and the single parenthood rate among white families is rising faster than for the other two groups.
"The kids in single-parent families are around five times as likely to be poor as in a married couple family, " said Haskins. "That's in part because a single woman often does not earn enough to get her kids out of poverty. It’s also because a single mother is really squeezed -- especially if she tries to work, so she has less time to spend with her children."
Danziger agrees, but points out one key finding of the Moynihan report that is often disregarded today. "The key thing about the Moynihan report that doesn't get discussed a lot, is the way he said to stop it is to make sure people have jobs. And there's pretty good evidence that in areas where there are more jobs, there are more married couples," he said.
Both agree that children higher up the income scale are holding their own in standardized testing and against international competition. "High-income families have much greater parental inputs, they're better fed, they're better housed, better clothed, they have extra curricular activities, their parents provide them with iPads and educational activities that low income families can't afford," said Danziger.
"As long as that's the case," Haskins added, "it's going to be very difficult for any government program to have a substantial reduction in poverty, unless we just give them money, which American voters don't like, and I don't think will happen."