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Vote Against Child Poverty

Daniel Ward argues that child poverty should be an election issue

As we approach the midterm elections in the US, policies and agendas are being debated and scrutinized, but there is one issue on which nearly everyone can agree—the richest nation in the world should have one of the lowest rates of child poverty—and now we know how to achieve that.

Child poverty is not only morally wrong in a wealthy country—it’s bad for everyone, not least the children who are unable to break out of the poverty trap because they can’t succeed at school when they’re tired, hungry, unhealthy, or don’t have anywhere to study. A significant percentage of those same children end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars every year.
Decreasing child poverty has been shown to be the single most effective means of improving educational outcomes in many varied studies.
The good news is that the share of children in poverty has been decreasing steadily for nearly the last 30 years, and now we know how to make it decrease much more rapidly.

A new analysis by Child Trends shows that child poverty fell by 59% between 1993 and 2019, and it fell across the board, in every state, and by about the same degree among children of all demographics—White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, living with one parent or two, or in immigrant households. Even the number of the most deprived children, those described as being in “deep poverty,” fell by over 50%.

The analysis concludes that several factors are responsible for this decline, including lower unemployment rates, increased participation in the labor force by single mothers, and increases in state minimum wages, but strengthening of the social safety net was by far the most significant reason for the decrease. The number of children protected from poverty by the social safety net more than tripled, from two million children in 1993 to 6.5 million children in 2019.

Gradual progress was being made, and then COVID-19 struck, offering us a make-or-break opportunity. Government bailouts and handouts were accepted as the only way to get through the pandemic-related closures, so it was easy to gain approval for a one-year increase to the enhanced child tax credit. That resulted in the share of children in poverty falling by nearly half in 2021. Just over 5% of children were in poverty last year, down from nearly 10% the year before, based on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, a broader measure developed by the Census Bureau that came into use in 2009.

The supplemental poverty rate for children was the lowest on record since the measure began. Without the enhanced child tax credit, the rate would have only fallen to 9.2%. Some 5.3 million people were lifted out of poverty because of the credit, and the total cost for the year was under $100 billion.

That may sound like a lot of money, but remember that the annual US defense budget is well over $700 billion, and this money can be spent on what is now a proven means of protecting the safety and future of millions of children.

The one-year upgrade to the enhanced child tax credit was not extended due to Democratic senator Joe Manchin’s insistence that recipients be required to work. However, there is some support for the measure among House Republicans, and new faces in Congress may be eager to add their support to such a winning policy.

The reality is that we know how to fight child poverty, we have a moral obligation to do it, and it makes economic sense, so ask your candidates if they support extension of the enhanced child tax credit while they still need your vote.

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