How We Could Cut Child Poverty By More Than Half and Pay for It Too

February 9, 2015

Back in 2007, the Half in Ten campaign set a goal of cutting poverty in America in half in 10 years. Not doing so well at that, are we?

Well, says the Children’s Defense Fund, what if we ended child poverty in this very wealthy country? That, of course, would mean ending poverty for parents and guardians too.

CDF recently released a report to take us a long way toward the child poverty goal. It offers nine recommendations that would reduce child poverty by roughly 60% — and deliver more economic resources for families of all but 3% of children who are poor now.

We’d have 6.6 million fewer children living in poverty, including half a million who are deeply poor, i.e., in households with incomes below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold.

What’s Notable

Several things distinguish this report. The first is that it builds on existing policies and programs that have proved effective. The aim is less to innovate than to increase reach — and in some cases, effectiveness as well.

The second, which is more distinctive, is that the report includes poverty-reduction impacts for each of the recommendations.* These reflect analyses by experts at the Urban Institute, who used Census Bureau data and its Supplemental Poverty Measure — a more complex and accurate measure than the one used for official purposes.

The third distinctive thing is that the report identifies specific policy and other budget changes that would yield enough savings or additional revenues to offset what the recommendations would cost.

What CDF Recommends

The recommendations fall into two big buckets. In the first are recommendations that would enable more low-income parents to work — or work more than they do — and to make their work pay more, both directly and through the tax code.

On the work side itself, we have subsidized jobs, like those temporarily funded through the Recovery Act. Also enough childcare subsidies so that all eligible families below 150% of the federal poverty line could afford high-quality child care during their working hours.

On the pay-more side, we, of course, have an increase in the federal minimum wage, but also an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and changes in the Child Care and Dependent Tax Credit. The latter would become refundable so that families with incomes too low to owe federal taxes could benefit. At the same time, the reimbursement rate for lower-income families would increase.

In the second bucket, we have recommendations that would ensure children’s basic needs are met. These are mostly changes in major safety net programs. And all but one — treatment of child support payments — would lift more children out of poverty than any of the work-related recommendations.

The most effective of all addresses housing costs. CDF proposes a large expansion of the shrunken federal Housing Choice voucher program.

Vouchers would become available for all households with children that have incomes below 150% of the poverty line and that pay — or would have to pay — at least half their income for rent at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rate. This recommendation alone would cut the child poverty rate by 20.8%.

Next down on the impact scale is a recommendation based on one the Food Research and Action Center has made for some years.

It would change the basis for determining SNAP (food stamp) benefits from the Thrifty Food Plan, which is generally used for no other purpose, to the Low-Cost Food Plan, which, FRAC says, is “generally in line with what low- and moderate-income families report they have to spend on food.”

We’d not only have fewer poorly-fed — or even underfed — children. We’d have 11.6% fewer in poverty. No benefits boost, however, for people who’ve got no children living with them.

How We Could Pay for the Proposals

First off, it’s worth noting that we’re already paying for child poverty — roughly $500 billion a year, according to an estimate a team of economists produced some years ago.

The proposals themselves would cost an estimated $77.2 billion a year. This is not only far less. It’s a tiny fraction — about 2% — of what the federal government spends.

CDF nevertheless lists five trade-offs, i.e., policy and spending changes that would free up funds to cover the costs of its proposals.

Like the recommendations, the trade-offs fall into two buckets. In one bucket, we have tax loopholes Congress could close, plus an income tax rate for capital gains and dividends equal to the rate imposed on wages.

In the other bucket, we have cuts in egregiously large and arguably wasteful Pentagon spending. Congress could, for example, give up on the F-35 fighter plane, which still can’t fly. This would free up $162.5 million per plane.

Total savings from this alone would fund all CDF’s proposals for 19 years, it says. Could be even longer, since the President’s proposed budget would fund more of these clunkers than the estimate CDF relied on.

On the other hand, the President’s budget does include some proposals similar to CDF’s, e.g., a subsidized jobs program, a larger maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit for families with young children, more funding for housing vouchers, though far from enough to expand eligibility. General resemblances to some of the trade-offs in his tax code proposals too.

House Speaker John Boehner, among others, pronounced the budget DOA even before it got to Congress. Other sources think there might be some common ground. Far from enough — or in enough of the right places — to significantly reduce the child poverty rate. But it’s useful to know how we could do it — and pay for it too.

* Economist/blogger Jared Bernstein, who uses the report to poke Republican Presidential hopefuls, provides a table that identifies each recommendations, its impact of child poverty and the net new cost.

 

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Low-Income Children Could Be Worse Off After Health Care Reform

November 7, 2009

Last Wednesday, hundreds of concerned citizens answered the Children’s Defense Fund’s call to join a “stroller brigade” to the U.S. Capitol. Other brigades strolled in at least 16 communities across the U.S.

These brigades were to demonstrate grassroots support for “comprehensive, affordable, accessible health care for all children, no matter where they live.” This is by no means an inevitable result of federal health care reform.

CDF warns that the health care reform bills Congress is debating give short shrift to the needs of millions of uninsured and under-insured poor and near-poor children. They could, in fact, leave many worse off than they are now.

CDF and the “champions for children” it’s organized want Congress to do three things.

1. Guarantee all children access to the full range of health benefits they need, i.e., the early and periodic screening, prevention, diagnosis and treatment (EPSPDT) services children can get under Medicaid. There are four related concerns here.

  • Only some children enrolled in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) get comparable benefits because states can offer more limited coverage.
  • Under the bills now pending, children whose families purchase insurance through the newly-created exchange will not be covered for all EPSPDT services.
  • These children will eventually include those enrolled in SCHIP. The bill the House will vote on would sunset the program in 2013. The final Senate bill will probably extend it to 2019. But even before then, SCHIP children will be shifted to the exchange if a state runs out of funds for the program.
  • Premiums and out-of-pocket costs in exchange plans will be higher than what families pay under SCHIP. As a study for First Focus shows, the difference could be as great as 33%.

2. Eliminate the unjust lottery of geography. Here again, the problem is that SCHIP benefits and eligibility vary from state to state. In some states, SCHIP is structured as an expansion of Medicaid, thus ensuring EPSPDT benefits. Other states have separate, more limited programs. Twenty-two states permit enrollment of children up to 300% of the federal poverty line. The eligibility cap in the remainder is lower.

So what CHN wants in the final health care reform package is mandatory coverage under SCHIP for all children under 300% of the FPL, federal funding to ensure states can enroll all eligible children and, I infer, a nationwide benefits standard comparable to EPSPDT. It also wants SCHIP retained until the alternative can be shown to provide coverage at least as good.

3. Address bureaucratic barriers that keep children eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP from getting the care they’re entitled to. CHN says that complex application and enrollment processes and frequent renewal requirements now keep about two-thirds of eligible children out of these programs. It wants Congress to require a simple, streamlined process.

Those of us who didn’t stroll can support CHN’s agenda by signing on to its letter to Members of Congress.

As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observes, “children–most particularly, children of non-affluent parents–have no clout whatever in the political process.” They depend on us and venerable champions for children like CHN.


Too Many Juveniles, Not Enough Justice In Our Juvenile Justice System

March 30, 2009

Last week, the Georgetown University Journal on Poverty Law and Policy co-hosted a symposium on “the intersection of juvenile justice and poverty.”

Speakers came at the topic from different angles, but there was remarkable consensus on the big picture. To wit, there are too many juveniles and not enough justice in the juvenile justice system.

Everyone who spoke agreed that the essential thing is to keep youth out of the system because it tends to produce adults who cycle in and out of prison or, at the very least, subsist on the margins of society.

And, though not much was said on this score, the juveniles who are kept out are mainly those whose parents can afford private attorneys, plus those whose white, middle-class background inclines school officials, law enforcement officers and others to let them go with a warning. (Gun possession in school is a partial exception here, but that’s another story.)

Elements of the juvenile justice system can be improved. For example:

  • Reform schools and the like could provide better education, training, health care and supportive services that would equip their charges to return to school or get a job when released.
  • There could be more and better programs to help discharged youth reintegrate.
  • Schools could be required to eliminate barriers they’ve erected to keep discharged former students from re-enrolling.

But, the bottom line, speakers said, is that the juvenile justice system is intrinsically harmful because both detention and the institutionalization that often follows are traumatic and disrupt normal development.

So we need to focus on prevention. This will involve broad-based community programs that address risk factors from birth–or even earlier. And these programs will have to integrate families, schools, health care and social services, housing and community development programs.

A tall order. The research is there and so are promising models. There are pockets of federal funds that can be tapped.

But, as a nation, we are still focused on deterring anti-social conduct by punishing offenders–youth and adults alike. And punishment generally means incarceration, especially if you’re poor.

So we’ll need a major policy shift and a whole new level of commitment to prevent the ongoing waste of human potential that our way of handling juvenile lawbreakers perpetrates.

Children’s Defense Fund has launched a campaign to end our “cradle to prison pipeline.” It’s got action steps for us as individuals and for our communities, organizations and government agencies. There’s a lot to do. But the cost of not doing it is enormous–and heart-breaking.