Invest in kids and families now so that someday I’ll be out of a job
As the head of one of New York City’s largest child welfare organizations, I see every day how children and families are devastated by the unrelenting cycle of systemic racism and poverty. How is a parent supposed to decide between putting food on the table, paying for their diabetes medication, or buying a mattress for their child to sleep on at night? It’s often while struggling with these impossible choices that children and families end up in our nation’s child welfare and foster care systems.
If it were up to me, I would build a social safety net that would ensure families never had to question how they would meet their child’s basic needs — eliminating one of the key stressors that create the need for child welfare agencies like mine in the first place.
We now have a chance to make that safety net more secure for families who desperately need it as the Senate takes up President Biden’s watershed Build Back Better legislation. The bill passed by the House includes $400 billion for universal Pre-K and childcare subsidies, provides an extension of the Child Tax Credit that provides direct cash assistance to families, and creates a new federal program for paid family and sick leave. Now the Senate needs to make these life-saving measures a reality for American families.
But instead of focusing on our children, some senators are gearing up to argue over where to make cuts — cuts that will harm American families in a very serious way. These cuts will be especially detrimental for children in states with higher costs of living. For example, lowering the income limits for the expanded Child Tax Credit, as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is advocating, will unfairly penalize New York City families. A dollar here gets you far less food, housing, or child care than in rural areas. Arguing over which income threshold truly makes a family “poor” ignores realities on the ground.
I’ve seen children end up in foster care because their families didn’t have adequate resources to choose a reputable child care provider, or pay for a week’s groceries and electricity. Poverty can look like neglect from the outside, especially when we refuse to acknowledge and address the systemic inequalities that suffocate families. Our society continues to fail some impoverished families by not focusing on preventative, anti-poverty measures that break generational poverty. And generational poverty, fueled by systemic inequities, leads to child welfare involvement and further trauma.
Keeping kids in poverty is, quite frankly, traumatizing. If we don’t address the underlying issues of poverty and close the holes in the safety net now, vulnerable children will never achieve the successes and outcomes they are capable of and deserve—and our country will never reach the level of equity that will ensure its success. On the contrary, it will struggle with further polarization.
The Senate should step up to pass Build Back Better and get resources directly into the hands of families with dispatch. In order to stave off a worsening child welfare crisis and to help the next generation exit poverty, we must invest in families.
We know that direct benefits to families and children work. Expanding the child tax credit during the pandemic slashed child hunger rates by 24 percent. A recent study showed that for every $1,000 states spend on benefits programs for families living in poverty, foster care placements fell by 2 percent, child abuse fell by 4 percent, and child deaths fell by 8 percent.
A small amount of cash assistance like the Child Tax Credit can go a long way toward bringing stability to a child’s life and changing the trajectory of a family in poverty. Free and subsidized childcare and early education can bring economic relief to struggling families. Here in New York City, we’ve already seen how universal Pre-K has boosted families. Childcare subsidies will go even further, closing a gap in support that parents with young children face and giving families access to affordable care so they can go to work knowing their children are safe. Laying a foundation for literacy bolsters academic and professional success.
Meanwhile, more than 1 in 4 families in New York City’s child welfare system are homeless, living in crowded shelters that heighten family tension, disempower parents and strain academic engagement. Shelter units often lack kitchens so families depend on poor food options. As resilient as they are, children struggle to thrive in chaos and uncertainty, and housing precarity makes child welfare far more likely. The bill’s proposed expansion of housing vouchers and acknowledgment of nutrition supports could alleviate key stressors for families—improving safety, stability, and wellbeing for children.
If we do the right thing and provide resources now to children and families in need, in 20 years child welfare agencies like mine could be more narrowly focused — and that would be a good thing.
Let’s put our nation’s children first. I’m calling on Senate leaders to protect these crucial provisions for families in Build Back Better. Together, we can break the cycle of poverty so that families can stay whole and impoverished children can become stable adults. If we invest in families now, hopefully our next generation will have much less need for organizations like mine, and I’ll be happily out of a job.
Ronald E. Richter is CEO of JCCA , one of New York City’s largest child welfare agencies. He served as commissioner of New York’s Children’s Services agency under Michael Bloomberg’s administration.
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