How Are the Children? U.S. Senate Republicans Don’t Worry About That.

This week a group of so-called moderate U.S. Senate Republicans proposed to negotiate with President Joe Biden about his proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan stimulus bill.  But even the ten senators, who profess themselves to be moderates and who came forward with a $618 billion alternative proposal, proved themselves willing to neglect the needs of America’s children. The United States, the world’s richest nation, posts an alarming child poverty rate, but, apart from the voices of a handful of social justice advocates, any level of concern about child poverty is inaudible. Hardly anybody seems to have noticed that one of the great strengths of Biden’s American Rescue Plan is the President’s inclusion of funding for programs that would significantly ameliorate suffering among America’s poorest children.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Chuck Marr did recently recognize the significance of the pro-child provisions in Biden’s new American Rescue Plan: “President Biden’s $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan includes a Child Tax Credit expansion that would lift 9.9 million children above or closer to the poverty line, including 2.3 million Black children, 4.1 million Latino children, and 441,000 Asian American children. It also would lift 1.1 million children out of ‘deep poverty,’ raising their family incomes above 50 percent of the poverty line. To do that, the Biden plan would make the credit fully available to 27 million children—including roughly half of all Black and Latino children—whose families now don’t get the full credit because their parents don’t earn enough….”

On Monday, VOX‘s Li Zhou and Emily Stewart reported on the alternative, $618 billion plan released by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Thom Tillis (R-NC). This week, President Biden met with these senators about their proposal, which is described by VOX’s Zhou and Stewart: “Republicans’ plan includes not only substantially less funding for provisions like school reopening, it completely leaves out support for state and local governments, and reduces the amounts allocated to direct payments (aka ‘stimulus checks’) and weekly enhanced unemployment. The area in which the Republican plan is most consistent with Biden’s is the $160 billion in funds that it allocates for testing, vaccines, and personal protective equipment for medical professionals.” In the recent VOX report, you will note that while some of the programs described would address the needs of children, the reporters fail to name ameliorating child poverty as something government should specifically consider.

And, on Tuesday, neither were the needs of America’s poorest children mentioned in the text of the Washington Post‘s major news story on the debate about Biden’s stimulus plan. However, if you were paying attention, you might have noticed that a graphic embedded in the Post‘s story clearly showed you that while President Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan does protect children, the Republicans who brought forth their $618 billion alternative utterly neglect to consider the needs of children living in poverty.

Look at the categories in the graphic.  Biden proposes an investment of $120 billion to increase the child tax credit and make it fully refundable; the Republican proposal eliminates money for the child tax credit from the federal stimulus bill. The Republicans would cut in half Biden’s proposed $40 billion investment in child care. While Biden’s American Rescue Plan would invest $170 billion to support safe reopening of public schools, the Republicans drastically cut that investment to $20 billion.  Finally Biden’s plan would invest $350 billion in relief for state and local governments, whose tax revenues have fallen due to business shutdowns and layoffs in the COVID-19 recession.  State governments provide, on average, 47percent of all funding for K-12 public education. Without federal relief, the projected collapse in state budgets will inevitably result in fewer teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, and arts programs across the public schools that serve over 50 million U.S. children and adolescents. The Republican plan also slashes direct payments to families, unemployment insurance, and rental assistance, all cuts which would directly undermine the well-being of the poorest families with children.

Fortunately, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate is preparing to pass Biden’s plan through reconciliation without slashing the programs designed to assist the poorest American families with children. But there is a bigger issue here. Why does America refuse to see child poverty or name overcoming child poverty as a national priority?

For three decades, Republican orthodoxy has disdained government dependency—blaming poor parents and promoting hardship as an incentive to make parents look harder for work, even in an economy with too few jobs that pay a living wage. The focus is on incentivizing poor parents to work harder while the needs of their children are forgotten.

Last fall, economist Paul Krugman explained: “You might think that Republicans would set the plutocratic imperative aside when the case for more government spending is compelling, whether it’s to repair our crumbling infrastructure or to provide relief during a pandemic. But all indications are that they believe — probably rightly — that successful government programs make the public more receptive to proposals for additional programs…  And that’s why Republicans are unwilling to provide desperately needed aid to economic victims of the pandemic. They aren’t worried that a relief package would fail; they’re worried that it might succeed, showing that sometimes more government spending is a good thing. Indeed, a successful relief package might pave the way for Democratic proposals that would, among other things, drastically reduce child poverty.”

In his 1838 novel, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens exposed the kind of thinking that, this week, underpins the $618 billion stimulus proposal ten Republican U.S. Senators presented as though it is an alternative to Biden’s American Rescue Plan.  In Dickens’ novel, Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

We Like to Believe Our Story About a Generous Society, But the Plot Has Shifted

Let’s just suppose you are watching one of those TV movies for the holidays.  Or maybe you are reading a novel by Charles Dickens or going to the theater to see A Christmas Carol.  Generosity of spirit is a theme you will encounter especially in this season.  Throw an extra crust of bread to Jo the Crossing Sweeper, living in the street; help Tiny Tim.

What if our society were to try out that idea on a scale that might matter?  What if, instead of spending more tax money on schools for children in rich suburbs, we were to fix state school funding formulas to spend even a little more on schools for children in, say, Philadelphia or Cleveland or Dayton or Detroit?  It isn’t something that has been talked about much lately as we continue to focus on punitive policies for big-city school districts—policies like closing “failing” schools, opening privatized charters, and blaming teachers.  Maybe we could consider it as a sort of fresh idea in the spirit of the season.

Interestingly three school finance experts this week have raised the issue of adequate and equitably distributed school funding.   Yesterday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn, professors and researchers in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, writing about Surprising New Research on School Funding.  Noting that the School District of Philadelphia (SDP)  is regularly condemned as a low-performing district, Steinberg and Quinn share, “preliminary findings from an ongoing study of school funding suggest(ing) that the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Indeed, we believe that the SDP, rather than a story of failure, is a story of possibility.”

Steinberg and Quinn explore what they call an adequacy gap, “the extent to which actual spending falls below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students.”  They continue: “Of course, the fact remains that neither the SDP nor its nearest counterparts are even close to adequate levels of achievement…. So our findings should in no way be interpreted as a call to slash funding for any of these districts.  If anything, we see this as evidence in favor of reinstating a statewide fair funding formula, which takes into consideration differences across districts in the characteristics of the students served—such as poverty, English language learners, and special education—as well as characteristics of the district itself, such as local labor market conditions and cost of living, among other student and district factors.”

And in Ohio, Dr. Howard Fleeter of The Education Tax Policy Institute has taken a new, comparative look at school expenditures per pupil.  Fleeter’s topic seems particularly important to me because I have on at least two recent occasions been surprised to be told by members of the Ohio legislature that Ohio’s urban districts are spending more per pupil in some cases than wealthier suburban districts and not getting anywhere near the same test scores.  These legislators have, of course, bought the simplistic notion that expenditure of money can purchase test scores as though this were some sort of market transaction without much worry about the other factors that are likely to affect education.

Dr. Fleeter, however, noticed that standardized test scores across Ohio are highly correlated with the level of family poverty or wealth in our over 600 school districts.  Fleeter writes that his review of poverty data caused him to undertake a new study of Ohio’s school funding, a study whose results suggest that Ohio’s formula grossly under-calculates the amount of money school districts need in order to serve children in concentrated poverty.  It is not surprising then that, in Fleeter’s spreadsheet, the eight districts whose funding would be most significantly raised by increasing the poverty weight in our formula are Cleveland (100 percent of children in poverty), Dayton (94.05  percent poverty), Youngstown (93 percent poverty), East Cleveland (91.81 percent poverty), Lorain (88.31 percent poverty), Akron (86.61  percent poverty), Mansfield (84.35  percent poverty), and Warrensville Heights (83.9 percent poverty).

The narratives we tell ourselves about our society do matter.  We like to feel we are characters in one story—the one about the American Dream of generosity and opportunity and meritocracy—when our lives are part of a much sadder story.  I wonder when we will wake up and realize the plot has shifted.  I am so glad this morning to report on these three researchers—Dr. Steinberg, Dr. Quinn, and Dr. Fleeter—who are trying to show us something about the real story of America these days.