Child Poverty Should ‘Scar Our Conscience’

Child Rights
Federal Budget
Poverty & Family Economics

This was originally published at the Huffington Post.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 percent of our nation’s children lived in poverty in 2015. This is an improvement over 2014 data, when a million more children lived in poverty.

While progress is good and welcome, 14.5 million children continue to live in poverty, and children remain the poorest residents in our country. It is a national crisis and disgrace that federal, state, and local policymakers have been far to willing to ignore and do little to address.

Meanwhile, across the ocean, Member of Parliament Dan Jarvis finds the U.K. child poverty rate unacceptable and demanding of immediate attention, even though it is lower than the U.S. rate. Jarvis says:

Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures.

To address the problem, Labour MP Jarvis is introducing a bill to reset Britain’s Child Poverty Target. This builds on action the Parliament took in 2010 when it passed the Child Poverty Act, which, as Jarvis explains, “committed both current and future governments to take action to eliminate child poverty.”

By resetting the target “with a focus on reducing child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future,” Jarvis’s explains that the goal is to “build a better Britain that provides security, opportunity, and hope to those children who need it most.”

Having a shared framework and goal, such as the Child Poverty Target, is critically important in order to find solutions across partisan lines. Jarvis adds, “We serve in politics to change lives. That is why I believe common cause can be found across our Parliament, so that child poverty need not be a feature of Britain’s future.”

In the United States, we should do the same. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, children in this country are 69 percent more likely to live in poverty than adults.

If you remove cash and noncash income from the Census Bureau’s poverty estimates, the child poverty rate rises to an astounding 26.8 percent.

The good news is that the U.S. has a critically important safety net system that helps lift millions of children out of poverty. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which takes into account the value of both cash and noncash assistance to families with children in setting the poverty level, programs like Social Security, the Child Tax Credit (CTC), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing subsides, child support, school lunch, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) help lift millions of children out of poverty.

Fortunately, after adjusting the poverty rate for the value of cash and noncash programs of importance to low-income families, the rate of child poverty drops from the high of 26.8 percent to 16.1 percent.

WWW.WHITEHOUSE.GOV

Some conservative analysts, such as Scott Winship, argue that the child poverty rate should be lower than the Census Bureau’s SPM. For example, Winship argues that an estimate of Medicaid’s value should be used to further reduce the Census Bureau’s estimate of children living in poverty.

Professors Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, who authored $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, disagree. Edin and Shaefer argue that Medicaid is “vital,” but that it s not “equivalent to cash.” They add, “That is, a parent cannot extract any value from an ATM machine, use the benefit to pay the rent, or buy socks and underwear for the kids.”

Edin and Shaefer are correct. While Medicaid does provide much needed access for a child to treatment for an ear inflection, dental care, developmental screenings, asthma, or immunizations, it does not give families cash. Medicaid also doesn’t guarantee the alleviation of families expenses in the same way that noncash benefits like SNAP and housing programs do.

However, regardless of how you actually account for the value of the safety net in reducing child poverty, both progressive and conservative poverty experts increasingly agree that the safety net is critical to low-income families with children. It is critically important that congressional leaders, such as Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), receive this bipartisan message because they have been arguing that safety net programs are ineffective and need to be slashed.

As Danilo Trisi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says:

Policymakers negotiating budget and tax priorities should keep in mind that the safety net keeps millions of children, adults, and seniors of all races and ethnicities from falling below the poverty line. Deep cuts to these programs would make them much less effective at reducing poverty and would push the U.S. poverty rate substantially higher.

Clinton, Ryan, and Clyburn Have Poverty Plans: How to Build Upon Them and Create a Framework for Action on Child Poverty

After years of mostly silence and inattention from our nation’s policymakers, there is a growing bipartisan interest in addressing poverty.

Secretary Hillary Clinton has put forth a poverty proposal in her presidential campaign that includes a focus on child poverty.

Clinton wrote in the New York Times:

The true measure of any society is how we take care of our children. With all of our country’s resources, no child should ever have to grow up in poverty. Yet every single night, all across America, kids go to sleep hungry or without a place to call home. We have to do better.

She goes on to discuss the need for better paying jobs, affordable housing, child care, paid leave, and investing in Early Head Start as examples of a policy agenda to reduce child poverty that she would push if elected president.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has offered a 35-page plan he called “A Better Way” that criticizes current “welfare” spending as being uncoordinated and ineffective at reducing poverty. He calls for more evidence-based spending, eliminating marriage disincentives, imposing more work requirements, reducing error rates in payments, improving tax policy, and shifting more decision-making to states through expanded use of block grants.

Critics of Ryan’s proposal point out that current safety net programs do reduce poverty are thereby argue against the plan’s underlying premise that current spending on the safety net is ineffective. Furthermore, the plan’s focus on converting a number of federal programs like Medicaid and SNAP to block grantsare viewed as a mechanism that would slash federal support to states and harm low-income people.

On the other hand, as Robert Doer at the American Enterprise Institute points out, Ryan does deserve credit for choosing “to focus on the difficulties of the poor.” He adds, “I think they, at least in the speaker’s case, he and the Republicans have to be taken at face value. They think the problems of the poor are a really serious issue. He wasn’t putting his finger up in the wind and saying how does this play politically.”

There are also signs of possible bipartisan agreement on poverty as both President Barack Obama and Ryan have talked about expanding the EITC to childless adultsand Clinton and Ryan have expressed support for a proposal by Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC), which is known as the “10-20-30 plan.”

Clyburn’s poverty plan would target at least 10 percent of federal development funding to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below poverty during the last 30 years. The following map from the Library of Congress highlights the geographic areas that would receive targeted funding from the Clyburn proposal.

Clyburn’s 10-20-30 Plan would target funding to those areas in purple

Although it is significant that there is finally some bipartisan dialogue and even some common ground on the issue of poverty, tax credits for childless adults and the “10-20-30 plan” do not include a focus for addressing child poverty. In fact, there still is not even much agreement on some of the underlying the facts relating to child poverty.

For example, conservatives argue that the work requirements imposed on low-income families in TANF were instrumental in reducing child poverty in the 1990s. In contrast, progressives argue that TANF did real harm to low-income families, particularly children living in deep poverty, and that that any progress on child poverty has been achieved because of a strong economy in the 1990s and due to growth in other safety net programs that have compensated for the TANF cuts.

Fortunately, at a Brookings Institution forum on the 20th anniversary of TANF, Doer sought to bridge that divide. He said:

No anti-poverty program acts alone in children’s lives, and the TANF program is only a small part in the overall safety net. . . Academics can try to isolate and disentangle the effect of TANF, but it really is almost impossible to do. So may other forces are at work and all interact together to aid a family. It is the combination of TANF work requirements, greater child support collection, more EITC and more public health insurance and more SNAP and more earnings, which have helped more poor families become better off than they were in 1996. 

To ensure further progress, rather than pushing to cut them, we need to reach a common understanding that programs like Medicaid and SNAP are critically important role in supporting families with children living in poverty, particularly in light of the declining role that TANF plays. Medicaid and SNAP work and must be protected.

However, doing no harm is just the first step. What is also needed is a comprehensive agenda to lift 14.5 million children out of poverty and a framework for beginning that dialogue.

That is why over 250 organizations from across the country have come together in support of the “Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2015.” This legislation (S. 2224/H.R. 2408), introduced by Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), would establish a national Child Poverty Target in the U.S. with the goal of cutting child poverty in half ten years and eliminating it in 20 years.

The British experience has been instructive and a model for the bill. In 1999, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair made a commitment to cut child poverty in half over a 10-year period and was successful in achieving that goal. As the following chart from Jane Mansour and Megan Curran in Academic Pediatrics shows, enormous progress was made in cutting absolute child poverty rates in the U.K. between 2000 and 2010 while child poverty rates were increasing in the U.S.

“CHILD POVERTY: THE UNITED KINGDOM EXPERIENCE,” BY JANE MANSOUR AND MEGAN CURRAN, ACADEMIC PEDIATRICS

The key to success in the U.K. was getting agreement from different agencies and levels of government to share responsibility for ensuring real and sustained progress on child poverty. In a paper for First Focus by Natalie Branosky and Mansour at InclusionUS, they explain:

A target and timeline will drive a lasting focus on poverty as a national concern. A target placed in law has the potential to transcend political differences, demonstrates government and community commitment to a national effort, and provides advocacy groups and media with a “yardstick” for accountability and national performance. It is also flexible. Experience in the UK has shown that two different governments with different approaches and priorities have been able to operate within the target, and be held accountable to it.

Taking another cue from overseas, U.S. organizations supporting the creation of a Child Poverty Target in the U.S. have come together to form a coalition called the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG-USA). The coalition is modeled after similar groups in the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Explains CPAG member, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP):

Poverty remains the single biggest threat to child well-being, and there is simply too much at stake to wait for the economic tide to lift all boats.

NCCP adds:

It’s vital that we continue to draw the attention of lawmakers and policymakers to research-backed solutions to poverty, mitigating its harmful and often long-term effects on children. That’s why NCCP has joined with other national and state nonprofits to form the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to see that child poverty reduction is made a priority in Congress and in the next administration. CPAG’s membership includes First Focus, The Century Foundation, the National Council of La Raza, Center for Native American Youth, and MomsRising. We’ll be working together to foster bipartisan support to lift all poor children out of poverty and improve the lives and futures of our nation’s next generation of adults. Finding common ground across political lines is the only way to achieve real progress.

An astounding 14.5 million children in the United States live in poverty. That figure is greater than all the children who live in the 27 states of Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming combined.

Children account for less than one-quarter of the population but, according to the Brookings Institution, they make up 35 percent of those living in poverty.

This level of child poverty is disgraceful and demands action. Fortunately, the British have given as a framework and a model for success. Now is the time for us to learn that lesson and adopt a Child Poverty Target – for our nation’s most vulnerable children.

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