Child Abandonment Is Inevitable When Families Earn Minimum Wage

Aside from addiction and major psychological problems, one of the greatest contributing factors to child abandonment is financial stress. This is not just a localized, occasional issue, but is actually deeply embedded in the American economic system.

Poverty In the First World

In less developed societies, understanding what poverty means is fairly simple: if a family often goes hungry or doesn’t have a reliable roof over their heads, they are impoverished.

In richer countries, poverty (including extreme poverty) still exists, but is usually more nuanced in nature. Although several definitions for First World poverty are possible, let’s focus on two factors for this article: financial security and freedom of action. Oversimplifying the issue a little bit, we can visualize a household’s status on two axes as follows:

Someone with savings is automatically secure (quadrants B and D), at least for a while, while having a high income to boot (quadrant B) allows them to spend their time as they choose, whether on recreation, self-improvement or by serving their communities. Most people would say that nobody with a decent job (quadrant A) can really be said to be living in poverty…and to some extent, they are right.

The trick here is that many families, particularly those with children, carry high levels of debt and may even have negative equity:

Statistic: Share of families with debt in the United States from 2007 to 2016, by family structure | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

For poorer families in particular, this debt is often taken on involuntarily rather than to finance discretionary capital purchases. Trying to save up for a rainy day is a pipe dream under these circumstances, and a change in interest rates, illness, the loss of a job or even an arbitrary decision by the bank can quickly move them from quadrant A to C. In other words, they may be able to afford a car, a reasonably nice apartment and the best espresso machine money can buy, but they are still at risk financially and can lose everything at a stroke. This may be accompanied by becoming homeless and even having to give up their children.

Rising Out of Poverty

A typical knee-jerk response from the financially secure, when hearing about parents (especially single parents) struggling to pay the bills, is that they should simply work harder. In a minority of cases, this advice is justified, but often enough it is no more than the equivalent of telling a one-legged man to keep up by hopping faster.

Working more hours at a minimum-wage job will have, at best, a marginal effect on a family’s level of prosperity. At the same time, doing so has a major effect on a parent’s freedom of action as mentioned above, definitely including their ability to plan for the future.

Spending more time and energy on earning money removes opportunities to pursue education – the only truly viable way to escape the poverty trap – or spend time with children, which in itself is a social good. Taking a second job may even involve additional expenses such as transport and paid childcare. If this is taken to extremes, as some single parents have no choice but to do, they run the risk of being called bad parents by those with the freedom to prepare and eat meals at home, help with homework and start college funds.

The View From the Bottom

Partly as a result of technological changes, the gap between high and low earners continues to widen. Even though society as a whole seems to be doing better, the most vulnerable families continue to fall further behind:

Statistic: U.S. household income distribution from 1990 to 2016 (by Gini-coefficient) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

It’s no secret that the minimum wage is something of a farce. In a survey of the 100 largest cities in America, website GoBankingRates found that only 13 of them placed a one-bedroom apartment within the reach of someone who works for minimum wage 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

Even in a dual-income household, trying to raise children on such a budget is a nightmare. Government aid such as food stamps help, but don’t quite do enough. In some cases, parents have to carefully weigh the relative advantages of working or living off unemployment benefits and getting Medicaid.

Yet, whenever this issue is raised in the media, the consensus seems to be that poor people, including parents, should simply economize further and find a second or third job. This means that such workers are effectively at the mercy of their employers and often have to work 70 hours a week or more just to get by – a situation which might as well be called slavery.

Fixing the Issue

Clearly, the labor market is untenable for those without valuable skills or rich parents, and this inevitably means that the same problems are going to be passed along to their children.

The fundamental dilemma is that some members of society simply can’t contribute as much, economically speaking, as others. Graduate specialists not only earn more, but face less competition for jobs. This is no more than unfettered supply and demand, sometimes referred to as the American Way by politicians who show more sympathy for corporations than low-income families.

Even they, however, will stop short of saying that record shareholder dividends accompanied by mothers giving up babies they can’t afford to raise is very American – in actual fact, it is uniquely so among developed Western nations. How this situation can be resolved before a large portion of society implodes is open for debate, but that something has to be done soon is beyond question.