A Bold Agenda for Tackling Child Poverty

The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty, income, and health insurance, issued in mid-September, told a bad news/good news story. The bad news—beyond the stagnating incomes highlighted in news reports—is persistently high poverty for children and youth, especially for those of color. In 2014, 21.1 percent of children (including nearly one in four children under five) and 19.8 percent of youth ages 18 to 24 were living in households with incomes below the federal poverty line ($19,043 for a family of three). Counting “near poor” families with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line, more than four in ten children and young adults are living under conditions of economic distress, making it an all-too-typical experience for America’s next generation.

The good news is that—dire as these numbers are—ambitious public policies are proving effective. Most dramatically, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced the number of individuals lacking health insurance by 8.8 million in a single year—the largest decline on record. Census data offers evidence of other policy successes as well, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). While the impact of these programs is not counted in the official poverty measure, an alternative measure also calculated by the Census Bureau, the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), shows that the EITC and CTC reduced child poverty by 7.1 percentage points in 2014, while SNAP reduced child poverty by 2.8 percentage points. While children are still the poorest under the SPM, the measure shows the clear positive effects of public policy.

Too often, the traditional American belief that large and ambitious public policies don’t work has served as a reason—or, perhaps, an excuse—to ignore the devastating consequences of child poverty. These successes change the playing field and should inspire an ambitious policy agenda to take aim at elevated poverty rates among America’s next generation.

The first pillar of this agenda should be to build on the success of the major safety net and work support programs such as Medicaid, SNAP, EITC, and CTC by sustaining their accomplishments and filling key gaps, such as availability to younger workers and uneven access across states.

The second pillar should be to address the consequences of low-wage work undercutting family life and economic security. This means passing and implementing a higher minimum wage, family and medical leave, earned sick days, and scheduling policies that give workers some measure of predictability.

While public programs supporting work—like nutrition assistance and tax credits—have gotten stronger, they have also faced a powerful head-wind from the growth of low-wage, low-quality jobs. Today, both poor and near-poor children typically live in families where someone is working, yet still can’t make ends meet. Nearly 70 percent of poor children and over 80 percent of low-income children live in families with at least one worker. And families’ economic distress comes despite sharply increased work by mothers in their children’s early years. In 1975, fewer than half of all mothers were in the labor force, and only about a third of mothers with a child under age 3, compared to 70 percent of all mothers and more than 60 percent of mothers with a child under age 3 in 2013.

Compounding this is the nature of low-wage work. Fully 40 percent of low-income parents have no access to paid time off, making it hard to care for infants or sick children. Unstable and nonstandard work schedules moreover prevent parents from securing stable child care. For young adults, living in poverty also makes it more difficult to access quality education and training programs, especially in high-poverty communities where these opportunities are particularly scarce.

The third pillar is to help parents (and low-income, low-skill youth and adults more broadly) move up to better, more stable, higher-paying jobs that can support a family, through improved pathways to postsecondary education and a career. In particular, public policy should fix the specific barriers affecting young adults and parents of color, such as the education and employment barriers in high-poverty communities that hold young adults back from college-readiness and access to good jobs.

The final pillar is to build a strong foundation for young children, promoting their own future success and stabilizing their parents’ lives through two-generational strategies like child care, which supports parents in both working and raising children. These strategies are especially critical given that nearly one in four babies and children under five are poor.

This new, robust agenda will address the lifelong consequences of childhood and youth poverty and the additional risks of poor conditions in low-wage work. Research shows that poor children—particularly those who are poor early in childhood and for longer periods of time—do less well in school, experience poorer health, and have worse employment and earnings records as adults.

This agenda would also serve to mitigate staggering racial, ethnic, and geographic disparities, particularly for Black and Hispanic children and young adults. Almost two in five (37 percent) Black children were poor in 2014, twice the rate for all children, as were almost one third (32 percent) of Hispanic children. By 2020, the majority of America’s children will be of color. For America to succeed, children of color must succeed.

The hidden good news in the Census Bureau’s report is that public policy can make bold change that positively affects the trajectories of vulnerable children, families, and individuals. Let’s build on the momentum of the ACA and take an ambitious, expansive, yet practical approach to addressing poverty.

This commentary originally appeared on October 5, 2015 in Washington Monthly.

© 2015 Washington Monthly (www.WashingtonMonthly.com) – All rights reserved. Republished with permission.