Researchers map a policy route toward huge reductions in U.S. childhood poverty

If national lawmakers took action on less than a dozen policy fronts, they could reduce child poverty in the U.S. by a whopping 60 percent. In sheer numbers, such a reduction would lift 6.6 million children out of poverty and significantly improve their opportunities for living long and fruitful lives. For the public health field, in particular, targeting poverty — a root determinant of lifelong disease and disability — could put an entire generation on a trajectory toward better health and well-being.

Those numbers are from the Children’s Defense Fund, which late last month released “Ending Child Poverty Now,” a report that provides a policy blueprint for cutting child poverty by more than half by building on policies and programs already in place. In fact, the report found that the nation could achieve this mark by investing just an additional 2 percent of the federal budget into existing efforts that increase employment, boost wages for low-income families and ensure that children’s basic needs, such as nutrition, are met. Currently, the U.S. has the second-highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized nations — our children face a one in five chance of living in poverty. (The latest data show that 22 percent of U.S. children live in households with incomes below the federal poverty level — that’s less than $24,000 a year for a family of four.) The report reads:

Growing up poor has lifelong negative consequences, decreasing the likelihood of graduating from high school and increasing the likelihood of becoming a poor adult, suffering from poor health, and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. These impacts cost the nation at least half a trillion dollars a year in lost productivity and increased health and crime costs. Letting a fifth of our children grow up poor prevents them from having equal opportunities to succeed in life and robs the nation of their future contributions.

To analyze the potential impact, researchers from the Urban Institute examined nine policy changes: increasing the earned income tax credit for low-income families; increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10; creating subsidized job opportunities for unemployed and underemployed people in families with children; and expanding child care subsidies. The report also examined enhancing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit; increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (the program formerly known as food stamps); making the child tax credit fully refundable; expanding access to housing vouchers; and disregarding child support payments when calculating eligibility for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as well as passing full child support payments on to custodial parents (for TANF families, child support payments go through the TANF program and large portions are often kept by the state to offset the cost of assistance, though states can waive that option.)

Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure — a new measure the Census recently began using to better illustrate the complexities of poverty — researchers calculated a variety of far-reaching benefits. In addition to lifting 6.6 million children out of poverty, the proposed policy changes would reduce poverty among children younger than 3 by 64 percent as well as improve the economic conditions of an additional 4 million poor children, though those children would still be living below the poverty line. The changes would also reduce poverty among black children, who experience the highest poverty rates, by 72 percent, and single-parent families would experience a decline in poverty rates of 64 percent.

Getting down to the individual policy level, researchers found that expanding access to housing vouchers for low-income families with children had the greatest impact — a child poverty reduction of 21 percent. Increasing SNAP benefits was the second-most effective individual policy, reducing child poverty by 16.2 percent. Expanding the earned income tax credit would reduce child poverty by 8.8 percent, and expanding access to child care subsidies would reduce the rate by 3.1 percent. Assuming that a hike in the federal minimum wage would also affect workers making slightly below the current floor of $7.25 and slight higher than the new wage of $10.10, researchers calculated that raising the minimum wage would reduce child poverty by 4 percent. However, the change that affected income most was a transitional jobs program, in which an estimated 2.5 million parents would be expected to participate and which reduce child poverty by 10.7 percent.

Of course, reducing childhood poverty doesn’t happen without a significant investment. The Urban Institute researchers estimate that the policy changes would increase government expenditures by $77.2 billion. But to put that spending package in context, consider it equals just 0.5 percent of the size of the 2010 U.S. gross national product. Plus, the report found that the policy package would narrow the poverty gap by more than $28 billion, which translates into a 36.5-cent poverty reduction for every one dollar of new government funding.

“The Urban Institute’s analysis for (the Children’s Defense Fund) is clear: by investing more in existing programs the U.S. could substantially decrease child poverty immediately,” the report reads. “Shrinking child poverty by 60 percent and improving economic circumstances for 97 percent of poor children would improve the life chances of millions of children, bring child poverty in the U.S. in line with rates in other high-income countries, and help prevent poverty in the future.”

To read the full report, visit the Children’s Defense Fund. And click here for an accompanying report from the Urban Institute. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on child health and poverty.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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