Spotlight Exclusives

The Material and Spiritual Benefits of a Universal Child Allowance

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Brown University Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Brown University, posted on

Children come to us deserving everything. It is because we welcome them as new guests in a world we’ve created for them that they occupy so much of our moral discourse. And yet, too many American children arrive in a world that is hostile to their flourishing. One of the most devastating challenges to confront children is poverty, a circumstance of privation and precariousness over which they have no control.

While the material consequences of poverty are striking a recent study found that the effects of poverty are more damaging to children than gestational cocaine exposure the emotional and spiritual consequences of poverty are often overlooked. These consequences manifest themselves in a number of ways, including elevated rates of abortion among poor women and a seemingly dark spiritual outlook.

For the pro-life and faith-based communities, these spiritual consequences should be especially troubling. But encouragingly, there is a policy solution that can appeal to both these groups and all people concerned with lifting children out of poverty. While the causes and solutions to poverty are no doubt complex, a universal child allowance would go a long way toward ameliorating hardship among the most vulnerable and addressing poverty۪s physical and emotional consequences.

This relief cannot arrive too soon. The child poverty rate ticked down slightly in 2013, but the overall picture remains grim. Nearly 20 percent of American children live in poverty, well above the overall poverty rate of 14.5 percent.

And these children represent only those who have been born. As I have noted previously, data regarding the reasons women cite for seeking abortion repeatedly finds that financial lack features prominently in those difficult decisions:

A 2005 study conducted by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute used a structured survey to poll 1,209 women having abortions as to why they sought them. 73 percent of women said that they could not afford a child at the time, while 74 percent cited the related reason that a child would interfere with education, work, or ability to care for dependents. A more recent 2013 study analyzed longitudinal data gathered between 2008 and 2011 from open-ended questions provided to 954 women seeking abortions, and categorized their reasons into 11 broad themes. A full 40 percent of women said they sought abortion because they did not consider themselves financially prepared for a child. [] In this study, financial unpreparedness was the most frequently cited of all reasons provided.

Between 2000 and 2008, women with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty line accounted for a full 42.4 percent of abortions, meaning that the reasons given track well with the demographics of abortion. Poverty, therefore, occludes the very possibility of life for a number of children before they ever have the chance to join us.

And for those who are born, hope and spiritual fulfillment can seem a long way off. The impoverished 14-year-old subject of Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos۪s poverty-focused documentary Rich Hill muses that, “God has to be busy with everyone else. Eventually, he will come into my life.”

It appears his concerns are not isolated: analysis of internet searches conducted in well-to-do versus down-and-out areas reveal that those living with less focus primarily on the dark, apocalyptic side of religion searching for terms like “antichrist”, “about hell”, and “the rapture.” The poor are more religious than the rich on average, which likely makes this sense of abandonment sting all the more a situation some spiritual leaders, like Pope Francis, have called upon society to remedy. For those living in poverty, miracles must seem a long way off.

We can۪t work miracles through politics. But we can engender hope for poor children and their families. A $300 per month universal child allowance would cut child poverty by 42 percent, lifting 6.8 million kids out of poverty. Being universal, such a program would extend even to the poorest moms who do not file tax returns, and are thus ineligible for non-refundable tax credits like those proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-UT).

Moreover, the monthly assurance of a child allowance is more attuned to the actual process of raising a child especially during a child۪s earliest years, during which the poorest mothers have the least job protection than an annual tax return. Mothers considering abortion due to financial hardship would thus find themselves in a far more stable, secure situation, and the children they bring into the world would benefit from both better material resources, and the knowledge that their society loves and cares for them.

Such an allowance would go beyond mere rhetoric to demonstrate a serious and substantive commitment to promoting the well-being of all children. And by its evident potential to lower the number of abortions and combat spiritual isolation, these policies could hold a special appeal to the religious community and social conservatives. For the lives, health, growth, and security of our society۪s kids, a monthly child allowance seems a certain avenue to progress.

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Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a PhD candidate in Religion and Critical Thought at Brown University. Follow her on Twitter at @ebruenig.

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