American families need a universal-child-allowance system

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I grew up in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods in Brownsville-East New York, where my family, like countless other families of color, confronted one systemic barrier after the next trying to escape the cycle of poverty. My parents loved their children and cared about our welfare. But they, like many parents living in these circumstances, were challenged by the stressors of everyday life, living in an underserved community. As a result of their challenges, my siblings and I even came into the foster care system for a brief period of time. Now, defying all odds and with the meaningful support of family and individuals who invested in me along the way, I am at the helm of one of the oldest child caring and family serving organizations in the nation, Graham Windham, founded by Eliza Hamilton.

Every day, I see countless families much like my own face untenable financial hardship, leading their children to fall behind in school, endure severe childhood trauma, and revert to the cycle of poverty as adults. The pandemic and lopsided economic recovery have only made things worse, as families are reeling from the loss of loved ones, unemployment and a widening racial wealth gap.

In America, child poverty is a chronic problem. Nearly 11 million children in America are poor. That’s 1 in 7 kids. The majority of these children are Black and brown. The grip of poverty is unrelenting — and the more families grow closer to the brink of crisis, the more likely their children are to come into contact with the foster care system like my siblings and I. I’ve seen it in both my personal and professional life — poverty is too often conflated with neglect. If families simply had the financial means to care for their children how they want to, we could circumvent thousands of families entering the child welfare system.

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan offers a glimpse into what ending child poverty in America could look like, as millions of families will get temporary economic relief thanks to the increase in the child tax credit. It may have the biggest impact we have seen in generations to help families avoid the trauma of hunger and homelessness — and potentially even family separation in the child welfare system. By providing up to $3,600 per child in direct support to parents struggling the most while earning the least, some estimates say it will cut child poverty nearly in half.

But what happens when these funds run out? What will happen to the millions of families living below the poverty line before the pandemic? We need our country’s leaders in Washington and at the local level to prioritize a long-term investment in ending child poverty. This is our moment to dismantle the racist and classist policies that deemed poor parents and children unworthy of the support that can lead to longer-term recovery and have generational impact.

We need a system that sees families as partners — as people who deserve compassion and support. As the leader of America’s oldest child, youth and family service organization, that philosophy anchors all of my work to keep families safely together. We must trust that families know what works for them and they are trying their hardest to take care of their children. And when those parents don’t have the financial means to do so, we should be offering them “helpful help” — the assistance that they tell us they need — not judgement. We could start by creating a universal-child-allowance system. This consistent infusion of funds to at-risk families could significantly reduce child poverty long-term. And unlike a tax credit, it does not exclude millions of immigrant families.

While the coronavirus may not discriminate, our systems do. At Graham, we see time and again how poverty forces parents to make impossible choices between keeping a job and finding child care, or putting food on the table and making rent on time. These systemic issues existed long before COVID-19, and they will exist long after the stimulus package dries up — unless we take action.

The American Rescue Plan is just the beginning. American families don’t need a temporary stopgap — they need a consistent investment that addresses historic economic inequalities. We have lost so much in the past year, but we have an opportunity to rebuild our communities with a focus on real financial relief for families now and in the years to come.

Kym Hardy Watson is president of Graham Windham, a child, youth and family service organization.

Tags American Rescue Plan Child poverty Child tax credit Coronavirus Joe Biden

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