Public policy can ameliorate child poverty without being revolutionary. However, programs need to be redesigned and targeted to alleviate instability, privation and misery for the more than 2 million children living in America’s poorest families. Child poverty overall was reduced in the decade between 1995 and 2005, but during that same period, the number children living in the deepest poverty rose from 2.2 to 2.6 million children. These are the conclusions of a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) defines deep poverty as families living below half of the federal poverty level—below $14,000 per year for a family of four. Who are these children? “Children living in deep poverty are a diverse group…. In 2016, 37 percent were white, 30 percent were Latino, 23 percent were Black, and 6 percent were Asian; 45 percent lived in suburban areas, 32 percent in urban areas, and 11 percent in rural areas; 51 percent lived in a single-mother family, 37 percent in a married-couple family, and 6 percent in a single-father family; 16 percent lived in a family where someone had a work-limiting disability; and 89 percent were U.S. citizens and 31 percent lived in a family with a non-citizen.”
This subject is rarely discussed in the education press, where the assumption for decades has been that, if teachers work hard and children study, public schools can, by themselves, provide enough opportunity to enable our society’s poorest children to surmount the obstacles posed by their families’ circumstances. But a mass of research (here, here and here) documents instead that schools serving concentrations of children living in the poorest communities are unable to accomplish this goal. Standardized test scores correlate in the aggregate with family and neighborhood income. The fact that 114,085 students enrolled in New York City’s public schools were homeless at some point during the 2018-2019 school year—10 percent of the district’s 1.1 million students—is an overwhelming challenge for the children and their families. Their homelessness and lack of access to the basics most of us take for granted is a problem which their public schools alone cannot solve.
The CBPP researchers examine child poverty data from the decade following the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—the welfare reform bill that “ended welfare as we know it” without ending child poverty: “The decade from 1995 to 2005 is the most suitable period for examining the effects of the 1996 law that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had chiefly served families with little or no earnings, with TANF, which offers less assistance and includes stricter work requirements and time limits… We estimate that the share of children in deep poverty rose from 3.1 percent to 3.5 percent between 1995 and 2005… Children in single-mother families, who make up the majority of TANF participants, showed a large increase in deep poverty rates from 1995 to 2005, from 5.4 percent to 7.4 percent… The number of families served by AFDC/TANF fell by more than half from 1995-2005, largely due to the 1996 law’s policies taking away cash assistance when a parent didn’t meet a work requirement, imposing time limits, erecting access barriers that made it hard for families to apply for and be approved for benefits…. In 1995, AFDC lifted 2.8 million children out of deep poverty. In 2005, TANF lifted only 700,000 children out of deep poverty, and in 2016 it lifted only 300,000.”
However, for many children living in poor families, other programs have filled the gap created by the 1996 welfare reform. The CBPP researchers explain that despite the collapse of support through TANF, “The deep poverty rate among children fell from 3.5 in 2005 to 2.7 percent in 2016… A key reason that government assistance became more effective between 2005 and 2016 at protecting children from deep poverty is that SNAP (food stamps) became significantly more effective: in 2016 it lifted 49 percent of children above half the poverty line who would otherwise have been in deep poverty, up from 42 percent in 2005.” SNAP continued to assist desperate families even through the 2008 Great Recession: “After the 2009 Recovery Act raised SNAP benefits, low-income households’ food spending rose and food insecurity fell.”
What are the other government policies which have protected the poorest families? After SNAP, “The net most important program protecting children from deep poverty is Social Security, which lifted 1.1 million children out of deep poverty in 2016. Social Security for children often replaces earnings for a breadwinner who has died or become disabled so that they cannot work; without Social Security to replace that income, the family would fall below half of the poverty line… Rental assistance programs reach relatively few eligible households due to limited funding… but protect from deep poverty… Rental assistance lifted above half the poverty line 98 percent of children receiving rental assistance who otherwise would have been in deep poverty without this assistance.”
One reason for the persistence of deep poverty—families with income below half of the federal poverty line—has been “a shift in the focus of government assistance, away from helping children in families with the least income and toward those modestly higher on the income ladder.” The 1996 welfare reform added work requirements and time limits, and in the past two decades, tax credit policies rewarding parents’ work have continued as the focus of federal policy. Beneficiaries are poor families in which, despite low pay, parents work and can benefit from the tax credits.
By contrast, to address the needs of children in deep poverty, there must be a system to assist families without work or income: “(T)he three policy changes with the largest impact on reducing child deep poverty are creating a child allowance, increasing SNAP benefits, and expanding housing vouchers. One way to essentially create a child allowance would be to make the Child Tax Credit fully refundable—that is, fully available to children in low-income families regardless of whether their families have earnings… The credit now provides little or no help to millions of children in families with the least income—those who need it the most. Making it fully refundable would allow children in lower-income households, including those with little or no income, to benefit from it.”
A tax credit lowers a wage earner’s taxes by refunding a percentage of taxes that are owed. A fully refundable child tax credit would award the unemployed parent the full amount as a way to support her children. If our society’s goal is to help children, we will have to stop worrying about punishing parents who may not be able to work or to patch together enough hourly, short term, or gig employment to support their children. Our society will need to address the needs of “2 million children (who) live in families with income and benefits (net of taxes paid) below half the poverty line, or below just $14,000 a year for a typical family of four. To make significant progress in protecting children from this level of economic hardship will require strengthening income supports for families in deep poverty, including those where parents are out of work, either temporarily or over a longer period.”