Children in the United States are more likely to feel the effects of poverty than children in western European countries, a Vanderbilt University economics professor says.

Timothy Smeeding made his remarks during a recent Hinckley Institute of Politics discussion forum at the University of Utah.Smeeding, whose latest book, "The Vulnerable," compares U.S. children and elderly to their counterparts in other nations, said most U.S. children fall into two categories, those who benefit from wealth and have a great deal of economic and educational advantage, and those who feel the impacts of poverty through poor nutrition, inadequate educational opportunities and lack of family income. He said few fall between those categories in the U.S.

By contrast, other countries have developed significant social policies to protect children from the impacts of poverty, mostly in the form of income protection for families with children. This comes either in the form of significant tax breaks or income enhancements.

Cultural factors play a large role in the disparity, Smeeding said. He noted that U.S. children are far more likely to experience life in a single-parent family or to spend part of their youth on some form of welfare.

"It's difficult for children, especially those in the inner cities, where their only positive role models are drug dealers and pimps," Smeeding said. "Education is our best chance to help, but, unfortunately, schools can get more money for (people with) labels, and those labels follow people for life."

Smeeding said he believes the current surplus in the Social Security fund could be used effectively to build a social safety net for children to address the debilitating effects of poverty.

With the nation's declining birthrate, forecasters expect today's youths to have a wealth of jobs available to them when they enter the job market. Smeeding said that advantage will quickly disappear, however, if those children do not have the educational and training background necessary to perform those jobs.