Spotlight Exclusives

Election Season: Putting Poverty Center Stage

Tiziana Dearing, Boston College Tiziana Dearing, Boston College, posted on

It may only be August 2015, but presidential campaign season seems already in full swing. As hopefuls debate the issues and solidify their platforms, it is vital that the well-being of our most vulnerable – especially children – becomes a priority in the race.

Recognizing how hard it is to get candidates to talk directly about poverty, I suggested earlier this year five “poverty proxies”—issues that anti-poverty advocates could use to keep attention on fighting poverty during 2016. They included the minimum wage, affordable health insurance, adult basic education, access to assets, and strong social connections.

Since then, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its 2015 KIDS COUNT report on child well-being in America. The numbers show we still have a lot of work to do for our kids, and that four of the five poverty proxies remain critical for 2016.

KIDS COUNT evaluates the status of children in America across four indicators: economic well-being, health, education, and family and community. According to this year’s report, which includes data from 2008 through 2013, the child poverty rate remains “stubbornly high” at 22 percent and has yet to return to pre-recession levels. The US has made overall progress in health and education, but experienced “setbacks” in economic well-being and family and community.

The improvement in health, combined with the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Affordable Care Act subsidies, arguably make the affordable health insurance proxy less important to the 2016 race. The minimum wage, adult basic education, access to assets, and social connections, however, remain imperative.

Let’s start with the minimum wage. While the number of children living in poverty decreased slightly, the percent of children whose parents lack stable employment rose to 31 percent. In addition, more than 26 million children lived in households with high housing costs burden, and according to Feeding America, nearly 16 million were food insecure. These realities put tremendous pressure on families to find ways to earn more.

A livable minimum wage that lifts families without killing businesses must be part of our solution.  A study cited in the KIDS COUNT report notes that for a family earning below $25,000, just $3,000 more in annual income during the pre-school years increases adult earnings by 17 percent. A full-time worker could earn that in just six months with a minimum wage increase of $3.00 per hour.

Meanwhile, as the KIDS COUNT report explains, “Increasing parent’s education and training is one way to increase family income.” Adult basic education is essential. Be it English language education, GED supports, or industry-specific advanced certificates, increasing the income viability of today’s parents is necessary to improve not only today’s workforce, but also outcomes for today’s kids.

Most concerning were the KIDS COUNT findings on family and community, which emphasized that “the percentage of children living in concentrated poverty continues to increase.” Even starker is the rate for African American children; 39 percent live in poverty, and fully 32 percent live in concentrated poverty. Both the Pew Economic Mobility Project and Harvard’s Equality of Opportunity Project have shown that sustained proximity to extreme poverty as a child increases chances of downward mobility as an adult.

In the face of this information, the temptation is to embrace a “move ‘em out” strategy, especially since Harvard’s Raj Chetty and colleagues also released a report this summer rehabilitating the once-maligned Moving to Opportunity experiment, in which families in high-poverty areas were given vouchers to move elsewhere and then tracked for their outcomes. What message does that send children about where they are from and whom they leave behind, though, and what about families who don’t want to move?

Here, both social connections and assets come into play. First, healthy neighborhoods rely on strong social capital. In Boston, for example, the neighborhoods with the highest rates of crime, poverty and unemployment also have the lowest rates of social trust. Further, families in traditionally “poor” neighborhoods increase their prosperity when they invest in social capital together.

Social capital can’t do it alone, however. Sooner or later, families must have assets. Assets provide families with their own insurance against the shocks of illness and occasional low-wage employment, the means to pursue more education, and the ability to invest in their own neighborhoods.

With the exception of the Earned Income Tax Credit, federal policy historically has done little to support asset building for low-income families, and, indeed, has discouraged it through asset limits. That must change. Assets were essential to the formation of the middle class, and are equally essential to a rising class that wants to leave poverty behind today.

Right now, campaign 2016 is a circus. Imagine, though, when the dust settles, a Democratic or Republican candidate proclaiming his or her commitment to America’s low-income kids in 2016.  Imagine, for example, the candidate offers a policy package that increases the minimum wage, doubles the number of adults who receive English language training within four years, pilots cohort-based economic development models in 20 cities, and partners with the nation’s four largest banks to trial $500 college savings grants at birth in select states.

Now that’s a race that puts kids in the lead.

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Tiziana Dearing is an associate professor at the Boston College School of Social Work. Follow her on Twitter at @tiziana_dearing.

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