Don't trade significant decrease in child poverty for deficit reduction

Aug 31, 2011

By Abigail Newcomer

Congress's August break is nearly over. During the next couple of months, the public will hear a lot about the super committee and deficit reduction negotiations. Lawmakers will publicly debate the "merits" of deep program cuts versus ending tax increases for corporations and the wealthiest among us. What should not get lost in these debates is how we protect vulnerable children and families who have been hardest hit by the recent recession and who continue to struggle as the economy limps along.

Over the last couple of years, we've learned that an increasing number of people have had to rely on safety net programs such as food, cash and housing assistance to put food on the table, make ends meet and keep a roof over their heads. These programs not only help families at a time of great need, they also significantly reduce child poverty and hardship, according to a recent report issued by the Urban Institute. 

The report uses the Supplemental Poverty Measure, an improved way of measuring poverty that takes into account the role played by taxes and public benefits, and also considers the variations in costs of living in different states.

The study found that programs that provide uniform benefits across states, such as the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have a higher impact on child poverty in states with lower wages and housing costs. For instance, the impact of these two programs was twice as large in Georgia than it was in Massachusetts, which has a higher cost of living.

Programs, such as TANF and housing assistance, in which benefits vary greatly by state, reduce poverty more for children in states with higher benefit levels. Both TANF and housing assistance provide broader assistance in Massachusetts and, in turn, pulled more children out of poverty there than in Georgia or Illinois where benefits are lower and fewer families received assistance. This is not surprising given that in 2008-2009 Massachusetts provided cash assistance to 41 families for every 100 poor families with children, while Illinois served only nine and Georgia only eight of every 100 poor families.

While the best way to improve the wellbeing of the nation's children is to ensure their parents have jobs with family-sustaining wages, the Urban Institute study demonstrates safety net programs have a profound impact on children. What's more, these programs can only truly support the wellbeing of children if they work together. None of these programs exists in a vacuum. While SNAP is feeding a record number of children and families per year, how effective can it be if, while food is in their bellies, children do not have roofs over their heads or enough money to support their basic needs?

As elected officials engage in back room discussions about reducing the deficit, they should keep in mind the short- and long-term impact of their policies. Reducing the deficit must not come at the expense of child well-being via slashing proven programs that lift children out of poverty.

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