Rep. Barbara Lee & Ezra Klein ask “What would it take to end child poverty in America?”

Poverty & Family Economics

On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, the host had a very specific question for Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) — how do we end child poverty in America?

Rep. Lee is a First Focus Campaign for Children Champion for Children and the chair of the Majority Leader Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity (she’s also a mom, who raised two kids as a single parent on public assistance). She explained this experience to Klein in the interview:

“I lived on public assistance for about four years raising two small children when I got a divorce, as a student in college, and it was really hard. I, first of all, couldn’t afford childcare and so I had to take my children to class with me, and they had to do their own homework, and so the stress alone with regards to what happens with children, going to school with maybe not enough food to eat so we have to have school breakfast and lunch programs because, for so many children, that is their only meal. And so when you look at the healthcare, nutrition, substandard housing, many low-income people live in polluted areas…when you look at the entire life of a child whose family barely makes minimum wage and then access to SNAP and Section 8 vouchers are hard to come by because of this Administration, you see this cycle of poverty where families have a difficult time, even those working two or three jobs to move themselves out of poverty, and of course children, with the school system, with larger class sizes, fewer teachers, so its almost a pandemic upon a pandemic as it relates to the poverty pandemic as it relates to children living in America.”

Along with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Lee pushed for Congress to commission a landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) called A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty.

The report, released in February of 2019, had several important findings — namely, that “cutting our national child poverty in half within a decade is doable if there is the political will to act.” Rep. Lee also explained that “Highlights from the study are very important because it is a roadmap for legislative and funding priorities for the House of Representatives and some state and local measures it addresses also.”

And while the report pushed many in Congress to call for immediate action after it was released, the need for action has only become more critical in the wake of the dual crises of COVID-19. Children begin this recession with a poverty rate that is already 54.4 percent greater than that for adults, but if past recessions are an indicator, economic downturns are often deeper and longer for kids. Columbia University predicts that child poverty could rise by as much as 53 percent as a result of the outbreak.

Ezra Klein reflected on this reality saying,

“Every politician from both parties talks about how we need equal opportunity, no one thinks children are responsible for their own lot in life, yet we allow this ongoing national stain, this horror in our children’s lives to just go forward, and it wouldn’t be that expensive to fix.”

Rep. Lee drove that point home even further, pointing out the need for all of us to advocate on behalf of children, saying  

“…We need to talk about the values of human life and human dignity, no matter how old you are. The Children’s Defense Fund and other organizations have been very active lobbyists for children, but I don’t see the type of money being put into lobbying for legislation that would directly lift children out of poverty that I have seen over the years when it came to our senior citizens, and thank goodness they have an active lobby in Washington, DC through AARP and other senior groups, but again we need to value human dignity and human life.” 

That’s why we helped launch End Child Poverty U.S.  — a national campaign led by non-profit, child-focused organizations — because we know we can eliminate child poverty and we know now is the time to act. Our goal is to create a national target to cut child poverty in half within a decade, creating a mechanism to hold the government accountable to making child poverty reduction a priority.

And, as Rep. Lee puts it, “Everyone who has a conscience should stand up and say ‘no more’ — we are going to deal with child poverty in a comprehensive way so we can begin to turn this around.”

Listen to the podcast and tell us what you think in the comments below.