We Must Invest in Reducing Child Poverty

Jun 22, 2011

By Hilary Hall

With talk of deep cuts to domestic programs dominating discussions on deficit reduction, a June 16 Congressional Briefing on addressing child poverty was especially well-timed. As Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) stated in his opening remarks, "Sometimes policymakers will lose their focus on children when times are rough. We have to be especially vigilant." Keeping that in mind, Protecting our Children in Tough Economic Times: What Can the United States Learn from Britain? focused on what works, what doesn't and why investing in children is the most important investment for the future the government can make.

Since 1999 when Britain set a poverty reduction target, the UK has cut child poverty by more than half in absolute terms based on three broad anti-poverty aims pursued by the government: promoting work and making work pay, raising incomes for families with children, and investing in children. Through welfare to work programs, working families and new child tax credits, a universal preschool system for 3 and 4 year-olds, increased education spending, and longer paid maternity and paternity leaves, the British government made child poverty a national priority. Jane Waldfogel, a speaker at the Congressional Briefing, said in March on a Spotlight on Poverty audio conference that "One of the motivations of the reforms was the idea that children who grew up in poor families were going to be disadvantaged throughout their childhood, and were going to be at a higher risk of being poor as adults themselves." 

While the United Kingdom has made enormous strides, it faces significant budget constraints, and income inequality has grown there as it has in the United States. In announcing welfare program changes, the pledge to protect low-income families has been reiterated, although it remains to be seen whether cuts such as those under way for welfare and housing benefits fit the pledge. Nevertheless, the results of the UK's child poverty efforts are remarkable, especially in contrast with America. Child poverty in the United States has trended upwards since 2000, and there are more than 14 million children living in poverty. The British government's child poverty efforts are an example of how federal programs can make dramatic improvements in the health and well-being of children and families.

Investing in measures that combat child poverty yield long-term return, often with positive impacts that carry into adulthood, both on the individual and on society and the economy. CLASP's Hannah Matthews wrote in February that "Much has been written about the return on investment for quality early childhood services. For every dollar invested, economists have argued that the public may receive $7 or $8 or $12 back in return. Unless policymakers soon heed this research, we may soon be asking, what is the return on disinvestment?" Despite the data, recent budget proposals have called for spending cuts to programs such as Medicaid, Head Start and nutrition assistance programs like WIC and SNAP, or food stamps, that help families and children immensely.

As all who spoke at the briefing pointed out, children were not responsible for the recent economic downturn, so why should we now cut programs on which many of them depend? The British government was able to reach a tri-party agreement on prioritizing addressing child poverty and made strides even during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. America's elected officials should be able to create the same consensus that fighting child poverty is an investment in our nation's future. Investing in the programs and services that work for low-income families and children now will result in healthier, more educated, and more economically secure adults. That should be something we can all agree we need.

Learn more about the UK's successful child poverty reduction efforts in this past audio conference from CLASP-managed Spotlight on Poverty, Reducing Child Poverty - Tips for the U.S. from Across the Pond.

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