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Efforts to End Child Poverty Intensify Locally, Nationally

Woman gestures
Vice President Kamala Harris participates in a listening session at the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven, Conn., Friday, March 26, 2021, on how the American Rescue Plan addresses child poverty and education. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Joe Biden proposed a $1.8 trillion dollar spending package last month, which could dramatically reduce the child poverty rate nationwide. It would support a broader Democratic push to eradicate the condition.

One way it could  do this is by continuing an expansion made by the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in March, to one of the nation’s largest tax breaks: the Child Tax Credit. While the American Families Plan would cut taxes for childless workers as well, the White House focus has been on helping children, with Chief of Staff Ron Klain calling ending child poverty “an important objective.

According to an analysis by the Center for Poverty and Social Problems at Columbia University, The American Families Plan could lift over 5 million U.S. children out of poverty, cutting the child poverty rate by nearly half.

“It both increases the credit for families who are already receiving it, and it also makes the credit fully available to more families, especially families with low income,” said Chris Wodicka, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

The American Rescue Plan increased the maximum yearly credit from $2,000 per child to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for those 6 to 17. And, it makes the credit fully refundable, meaning families with low-incomes will be able to get the entire payment. But those changes revert at the end of the year.

In Virginia, the Child Tax Credit expansion will benefit nearly 1.6 million children and lift 85,000 out of poverty. While the effect would likely weaken as the economy recovers from recession, the White House says continuing the expansion would buoy the income of a family of four making $24,000 per year by over $4,400, enough to rise above the poverty line.  

But it isn’t just the federal government targeting child poverty. After grabbing their first full legislative majority in a quarter century in 2019, Virginia Democrats passed a major expansion this year to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food support to low income families.

Virginia’s expansion raised the income threshold for SNAP by over 50%, making at least an additional 25,000 households eligible for benefits. Over 700,000 Virginians receive SNAP benefits, which average around $130 each month. 

“It’s not something that is grandiose. It’s not something that people are buying steaks and lobsters with,” said Salaam Bhatti, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “These people are not living, they are surviving.”

While the federal government has expanded SNAP benefits during the pandemic, that change was not permanent. Biden’s new proposal includes measures to address hunger after the pandemic, including an expansion to a program that provides free school meals to all students at schools with high rates of poverty. 

Joseph Williams, an education professor at the University of Virginia, says hunger is one of many factors which prevent students living in or near poverty from succeeding. 

“These students… are oftentimes exposed to conditions that actually influence their health, their safety and their well being,” he said. “This could be limited access to healthcare, food instability, unfavorable housing conditions, or even unaddressed medical concerns, or decrepitated neighborhoods. And these things all directly impact people’s ability to do well.”

He cites these well being concerns as one of three main ways poverty affects students’ learning. Access to academic support programs, such as tutoring or opportunities to learn during the summer, is limited in areas of concentrated poverty. And, Williams adds, students in poverty often lack social capital.

“These external factors, that are oftentimes out of the control of students in poverty, have a direct impact on their academic performance,” he said. “Which raises a lot of questions about the need for policies and other interventions that are beyond kind of character building or organization skills in order to help these kids do well."

Williams says it's time to reframe the discussion around school funding from a focus on funding schools alone to funding communities. “Funding, and when I say funding I mean literally capital or money given to parents to do these things, is important, and I think it’s also needed.”

That’s the logic behind a series of experiments in Democratic-controlled cities nationwide, including Richmond. Last fall, Mayor Levar Stoney announced the city would pilot a universal basic income program, providing $500 each month to 18 working families. The city later added a further 37 participants to the project.

Some economists say UBI programs are more efficient than traditional welfare, because families know their needs better than governments. While announcing the pilot, Stoney said Richmond should trust Richmonders to use the payments well.

“I know my grandma would have spent this $500 on enough groceries for two growing boys and to start a rainy day fund,” Stoney said. “I trust these families to be the standard bearers for this program, just as I would my own grandmother.”

Members of the public may be slower to warm to the new program, however. Chris Howard, a government and public policy professor at the College of William and Mary, say Americans tend to distrust many living in poverty.

“There is, in this country, a strong notion about distinguishing between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor,” he said. 

That’s one reason social benefits are tied to employment in the U.S., Howard says, which can weaken the social safety net when the economy struggles. 

“When we have so many programs that are geared towards work, if we have lots of people out of work, then all of a sudden their healthcare may be jeopardized. Their ability to eat or maintain shelter may be jeopardized as well,” he said.

Williams says many hold a stereotypical view of those living in poverty as lazy and unwilling to work.

“It’s a constant narrative that we’re fed as it relates to poor people that they’re largely poor because of poor choices that they’ve made or a poor value system,” he said. “Some of the hardest working people that I know are people who still do this day live in poverty.”

Detractors of UBI argue the programs would remove the incentive to work, decreasing productivity. 

That wasn’t borne out in the results of a pilot program in Stockton, Claif., however, where full-time employment instead increased among those participating. That matches with what Virginia Tech economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani found studying a similar program in Iran. He said the limited amounts given there, about $300 each month, weren't enough to draw people out of the workforce.

“People have so many needs that are unsatisfied,” he said. “The idea that those expenditures will take a back seat to spending more time watching television is very far from the way poor people think.”

Some pundits have posited Biden’s relief plan signals a change in the way Americans view poverty, suggesting the nation may have moved past the welfare reform era of the 1980s and 90s. Proponents of that view say public opinion now stands behind the government expanding the social safety net, with a recent Washington Post column declaring, “these provisions to reduce child poverty effectively mark the beginning of an end to President Bill Clinton’s failed 1996 welfare law.”

Howard isn’t convinced.

“If you look at, in the past, major poverty [alleviation] efforts, like ‘Johnson’s War on Poverty…’ none of those are really responding to a big surge in public opinion caring about the poor, worrying about poverty, et cetera,” he said.

Howard says the Biden administration still faces an uphill battle in convincing Americans the government should address poverty. A Pew Research Center poll from January found 53% of those surveyed said “dealing with problems of poor people” should be a top priority. Eight other issues were listed more often.

“If Biden wants to make these programs more permanent, he’s going to have to find ways of justifying them that go beyond the pandemic,” Howard said. “[Biden needs] to start talking to us about problems that existed before the pandemic… And start telling us about why we need to address these long-term problems and that requires long-term solutions.”

But, Howard says the focus on child poverty is one that may succeed.

“I honestly don't [know] why it took Democrats this long to declare child poverty a top priority,” he said. “In the 1980s and 1990s, Democrats made real progress in providing health insurance to all children, primarily by expanding Medicaid. It was hard, politically, for anyone to say they don't think kids should have health insurance. Likewise, it would be hard to say it's ok if millions of kids grow up poor.”