Four Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill to reduce — indeed, to end — child poverty in our country. Will it pass? Not in this Congress. But as a lobbyist friend used to remind me, it took eight years to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act.
So should we press for a law like the proposed Child Poverty Reduction Act? I think so, as do some of our leading children’s advocates. Three reasons, with an asterisk.
Far Too Many Poor Children. Well over 14.6 million children in the U.S. are officially poor, according to the latest report. That’s nearly one in five. We’ve got too many poor adults as well, but children are the poorest age group the Census Bureau counts.
This is still true when the Bureau uses its better poverty measure, which factors in major near-cash benefits like SNAP (food stamps), as well as refundable tax credits. These lower the child poverty rate, but still leave nearly 12.2 million children below the applicable poverty threshold.
Lifelong Consequences. Children born to poor parents are more likely than others to die while infants. Research tells us that those who survive, as most do, can soon suffer damages to their brain and other systems caused by toxic levels of stress.
They’re at high risk for physical and mental health problems due to a wide range of poverty-related factors — inadequate nutrition, unstable (or no) housing, parental abuse and (more often) neglect, neighborhood violence and exposure to toxins, e.g., mold, lead paint, air pollution from nearby power plants, dumps and/or highways.
Needless to say (I hope), children suffering from such problems don’t arrive at school ready to learn — or in some cases, behave themselves, as classroom decorum dictates.
They’re more likely to miss school days because they’re ill, can’t get to school or have to stay home to care for a younger child — or because they’re suspended for misbehaving, especially likely if they’re black, Hispanic or Native American.
They may choose to miss school days because they don’t want to sit in classrooms where they can’t understand the lessons and to suffer humiliation because of that and/or because their peers gang up on them.
Ultimately, far too many drop up — mostly, though perhaps not always because they’re failing academically. Or they graduate, even though they can barely read or do basic math. Barring further education, most will face a lifetime of low-wage employment — if they’re lucky. Some, as we know, will find more gainful employment in drug dealing and the like.
A somewhat dated but still indicative study estimated that child poverty costs our country $500 billion a year in lost earnings, higher crime-related costs and increased health expenditures.
So if we need a cost-benefit rationale, which I’d like to think we don’t, then making child poverty rare and brief would seem a sensible priority.
Not a National Priority. We’ve already got programs to break the poverty cycle — too many to even simply list here. We’ve got research indicating other promising initiatives, e.g., the housing pilot evaluation I blogged on recently. We’ve got at least one full-blown agenda for dramatically reducing child poverty.
But, as First Focus President Bruce Lesley observes, tackling child poverty isn’t a national priority to the extent that top-level policymakers feel they must actually do something about it — or that we, the public, demand they do.
The Child Poverty Reduction Act aims to change this by importing elements of an approach that worked in the UK. Adopted there in 2000, it drove policy changes and investments that cut the child poverty rate, as we measure it,* in half by 2008.
The proposed approach has three major prongs. Like the UK’s, it sets goals — half as many children living in poverty and none in deep poverty in 10 years and no children in poverty at all 10 years thereafter.
The proposal doesn’t include new and/or reformed policies and programs to achieve these goals. Here too, it’s like the initial UK law. It does, however, differ somewhat in how the agenda would develop.
The elements of the UK’s child poverty initiative emerged over time, though the goal-setting law required both the overarching government and the nation-level governments the UK comprises to issue strategies.
The CPRA would instead set the stage for policymaking by mandating a national plan for achieving the reduction-elimination goals, plus recommendations for achieving related goals, e.g. understanding the root causes of child poverty, eliminating race, ethnicity and other disparities.
A working group of officials in at least six federal agencies would be responsible for developing the plan and other recommendations. It would first, however, have to commission workshops and research papers from the independent National Academy of Sciences.
So we’d have a blueprint of sorts, based on research already conducted — and perhaps new studies — to launch the actual war on child poverty.
Then, much as in the UK, the working group would monitor relevant programs and services and annually publish results. Reports would include states’ child poverty reduction efforts and recommendations for further legislation.
Political Will. As Lesley says, all major parties in the UK have embraced the child poverty goals there. And their leaders apparently feel they’re accountable to the public for the impacts of their policies and other decisions.
They face a major test because recent projections suggest the child poverty rate will rise, as a report for First Focus notes. The policy largely responsible for bringing the rate down would cost too much to replicate, it says, “even if the political appetite were there.”
The lesson here isn’t one we have to learn from the UK. We’ve had goals before. Then-candidate Obama was going to end child hunger by this year, for example.
We’ve had recommendations from independent research agencies, including the recently overridden exclusion of white potatoes from foods mothers could use their WIC benefits to buy. We’ve had reams of plans to achieve worthy goals — more than 243 to end homelessness, for example.
Don’t mean to sound cynical. My point is simply that even if Congress passed the CPRA, we’d still be merely looking at the annual Census reports and shaking our heads unless we create — and sustain – enough political will to convince our elected officials that they have to show progress toward the goals.
* Countries in the European Union ordinarily use a poverty measure based on their median income. Our official measure uses incomes adjusted only for inflation to divide the poor from the not-poor year after year. The UK now uses both types of measures for child poverty.