The federal economic stimulus package passed last month achieves something progressives have dreamed of for decades: monthly assistance for families in poverty with no application process, work requirements, nor restrictions on how the money is spent. This should result in an enormous improvement in educational outcomes for our most disadvantaged children as long as it reaches those most in need and is made permanent.
The link between child poverty and educational success is undeniable. In the U.S., about 30% of children raised in poverty do not finish high school. The correlation between poverty and low literacy levels is even more disturbing—82% of students eligible for free or reduced lunches are not reading at or above proficient levels by fourth grade. Multilingual learners make up a disproportionately high percentage of these students. Poverty can negatively affect a child’s cognitive development and their academic performance. Children living in poverty start off with a disadvantage, having a 50% weaker vocabulary than their wealthier peers.
The Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University has calculated that the child credit assistance will lift about half of the 11 million children living in poverty out of it. More than one in five Hispanic and Black children in the U.S. currently live in poverty, and projections show that over 3 million of them will be lifted out of poverty with the assistance.
In California, where there are the highest percentages of multilingual learners, over 60% of households with children will be eligible. And the federal child tax credit is available for all citizen children regardless of their parents’ immigration status—including the one-in-eight school-age children in California estimated to have at least one undocumented parent. Previously, families with no income did not qualify, and the lowest-income families qualified for less.
Even with the new provisions, some of the recipients most in need, like the undocumented and the homeless, are likely to slip through the safety net, so educators and community leaders may have to help them access assistance where they can.
Systemic inequitable policies practiced over centuries have created disproportionate rates of poverty, particularly among Black and Hispanic children. While education has always been touted as the route out of poverty, experience has shown that it’s darned difficult for children to learn when they lack food and shelter security.
The stimulus package faced unanimous opposition among Republicans, who may be heading for a majority in Congress when the child assistance benefits come to an end, so we only have a short window in which to garner bipartisan support for this historic program that can finally end the American shame of childhood poverty levels almost double those of other comparable nations and enable our public education system to fulfill its mission.
Daniel Ward, editor, Language Magazine