Solutions for Ending Child Poverty Now
We may pride ourselves on being the land of opportunity, but the truth is that we rank second to last in relative child poverty among the world۪s advanced economies, ahead of only Romania. An American child is more likely to be poor than a child born in Greece, Poland, or Hungary. One in five children in our nation lives below the poverty line. That is 14.7 million children who are growing up facing challenges like hunger, homelessness, and toxic stress that no child in a nation as rich as ours should face.
This matters for poor children but also for the nation as a whole. Poverty hurts children, increasing the likelihood that they will struggle in school, not graduate from high school, and earn less as adults. It increases the risk that they will be in worse health and be swept up into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.
But it doesn۪t have to be this way. The Children۪s Defense Fund for whom I serve as director of research has just released a new report called Ending Child Poverty Now that shows for the first time how America could end child poverty for 60 percent of all poor children and 72 percent of all black children, who suffer the highest rates of poverty in America. Poverty among children under three and among single parent households would both drop by 64 percent, and 97 percent of all poor children would experience improvements in their economic circumstances.
We can make this happen by investing another 2 percent of the federal budget to improve existing programs and policies that increase parental employment, make work pay, and ensure children۪s basic needs are met.
The policy improvements include increasing the value of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which has bipartisan support and played a key role in increasing employment among single mothers in the 1990s; raising the minimum wage so that a single parent of two working full-time isn۪t living in poverty; guaranteeing access to subsidized jobs; and expanding access to child care subsidies and to the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit so that parents can work, as the president rightly just proposed.
To meet the basic needs of children, our plan also increases the value of SNAP benefits, which currently only provide $1.40 per person per meal; expands access to housing vouchers so that families can afford a stable place to live; makes the Child Tax Credit fully refundable so that poor families can benefit just like middle- and upper-income families do; and ensures more receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families truly benefit financially from child support collected on their behalf.
In addition to improving the lives and futures of millions of children, these programs would eventually save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars annually. New research shows that boosting poor families۪ resources not only protects children from the immediate harms of poverty, but also raises their academic performance, health outcomes, and earnings as adults, helping to interrupt the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
Every year child poverty costs our nation half a trillion dollars six times more than the $77 billion investment proposed in the report. Not only does child poverty cost far more than eliminating it would, we have so many better choices that reflect more just values as well as economic savings. If our national budget is meant to reflect our shared priorities, it۪s troubling to see many of the programs and policies we fund give breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals at the expense of millions of children living in poverty.
We could invest $77 billion in children in a deficit-neutral way by closing tax loopholes that allow U.S. corporations to avoid $90 billion in federal income taxes each year or by scrapping the F-35 fighter jet program, which is several years behind schedule, 68 percent over budget, and still not producing fully functional planes. For the $1.5 trillion projected costs of this program, the nation could reduce child poverty by 60 percent for 19 years, an entire generation of children.
Our report shows that we have the policy solutions to dramatically reduce child poverty in America, and we know how to pay for them. Now what is needed is the public and political will.
Together we can work to end preventable and devastating child poverty across the country. For the millions of children who right now are hungry or homeless or hopeless about their future, we cannot afford to wait. As Children۪s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman says, “A nation that does not stand for its children does not stand for anything and will not stand tall in the 21st century world or before God.”
Caroline Fichtenberg is director of research for the Children۪s Defense Fund. You can follow the Children۪s Defense Fund on Twitter at @ChildDefender.
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