The Importance of Strengthening our Country’s Safety Net for Our Children
Twenty-six percent of children under age 6 in the U.S. live in poverty. Nearly half of children under age 6 are low-income (live below 200 percent of poverty). And child poverty is on the rise. Growing up in a poor or low-income family influences an individual’s ability to be healthy and succeed in school and into adulthood.
Public safety net and work support programs have long been a crucial means for families to combat the detrimental effects of living in poverty. Families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) are more likely to have adequate supplies of food throughout the year, and in turn, their children are less likely to be underweight or at risk for developmental delays. These health benefits have been found to last into adulthood. Similarly, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps families pay for energy costs, has been shown to improve outcomes for children, including increasing their odds of having normal weights for their age.
The importance of safety net and work support programs is the central focus of a new policy brief from the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) and First Focus. The brief, A Stronger Safety Net For America’s Children, provides an overview of the opportunities and challenges currently facing public safety net and work support programs for children and their families. A Stronger Safety Net focuses on 11 safety net and work support programs, including Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Medicaid to name a few.
While these programs lift millions of children out of poverty and reduce hardship for others, they could do more. Safety net and work support programs don’t, and in some cases don’t have the funding to, cover all those who are eligible. Many families make too much to qualify for these programs but still don’t make enough to be self-sufficient. Even when families do receive benefits they often still struggle to cover basic living expenses. The report highlights opportunities to improve programs to close these gaps. Action on both the state and federal levels can help address these issues.
States are already taking action to improve program policies, streamline procedures and better align programs, as well as improve the technology and process management of safety net and work support programs. For example, as part of the Work Support Strategies project, six states – Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Colorado, and Idaho – are undergoing an intensive, four-year process to streamline enrollment and improve access to and retention of a package of benefits for families so they will have the support they need as they work to pull themselves into the middle class (or out of poverty).
Now is not the time to cut funding for these crucial programs. Rather, we should be investing in these programs and taking action to expand their coverage. Moreover, we should be working to increase the number of good jobs that offer a living wage so that families will not need these programs. One concrete step in this direction would be to raise the minimum wage, as President Obama proposed in his State of the Union Address.
Low-income children and families count on safety net and work support programs to help provide for their basic needs, and these programs succeed in bettering these families’ lives. However, the status quo is not good enough. There is more work to be done and more children and families who need our help.