Building a brighter post-pandemic world for children

 Building a brighter post-pandemic world for children
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With Congress now assembling a major economic recovery package, policy disagreements and political wrangling are making headlines. But we can’t lose sight of what this debate is really about: our children. Failure to get a strong package across the finish line would mean accepting high poverty rates that will shortchange our kids’ futures, even though we know what works to reduce poverty. 

The pandemic hit families with children especially hard, but millions of families faced hardship even before COVID-19 appeared. Over a three-year period before the pandemic, more than one in three households with children struggled to afford adequate food, shelter or utilities, Census data show. Fully half of Black and Hispanic households with children experienced at least one of these hardships — often a combination. Such economic insecurity and want shortchange children’s futures and rob the nation of their full potential.

If we don’t act, extensive hardship will continue, even if our economy booms on paper.

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We know how to reduce poverty. President BidenJoe BidenUS threatens sweeping export controls against Russian industries Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida US orders families of embassy staff in Ukraine to leave country MORE and Congress should use economic recovery legislation to establish building blocks for children to thrive. 

A fundamental building block is family economic security. This year’s expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) needs to be permanent. We also need to make it easier to access and reverse the 2017 policy excluding certain children who are immigrants. The CTC expansion would help tens of millions of children and cut child poverty by over 40 percent. The benefits to families shouldn’t be undersold. Parents and other caregivers report using funds for groceries, child care and other bills, which reduces stress on children and adults alike. A policy like this would generate an $8 return to society for each $1 invested, Columbia University researchers estimate, because when we reduce poverty among children, they do better, strengthening the entire country. 

A second building block is a safe, stable place for children to call home. Housing instability and homelessness harm children’s health and school performance. Federal rental assistance can help families afford stable housing, but only one in four eligible households receive it due to limited funding. Offering rental assistance to more families who can’t afford market prices, particularly Black and Hispanic families, is vital to creating opportunity for children. Black youth are 83 percent likelier than youth of other races to be unhoused.

A third building block is making sure young children are well cared for. In over half the states, center-based child care for an infant costs more than public college tuition. These impossible costs can leave children without quality care during critical years for brain development and make it harder for parents to work. Providing access to quality, affordable child care for all families as well as pre-K would be a smart investment in our children’s future and an economic gamechanger for their parents. Infants and newly adopted children also need time with their parents. Paid time off for families and caregivers to care for their loved ones contributes to children’s healthy development and strengthens parents’ connection to jobs.

A fourth building block is adequate nutrition. Children need healthy food to grow, learn and thrive, but gaps in federal nutrition programs leave millions of children without consistent access to meals year round — disproportionately Black, Hispanic and Indigenous children. Hunger spikes in the summer when most children lose school meals, and many kids who could get free school meals during the school year don’t. With federal support, states can ensure all children get the healthy meals they need all year, especially the summer, when children are at greatest risk of hunger.  

Finally, parents need access to health coverage, which often leads them to get coverage for their children. Over 2 million adults, including many parents, are caught in a “coverage gap” — they should qualify for Medicaid but their state hasn’t adopted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. Of those 2 million people, 60 percent are people of color. All children, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status or where they live, deserve to grow up with parents who can get their basic health needs met.

Investing in children is as critical to our economic future as building bridges or installing broadband.  Research shows that children’s school performance can suffer if their families can’t make ends meet — and that government aid to families can help children succeed academically. Investing in children is a moral and economic imperative: All children deserve the resources needed to get a strong start in life, and we need a well-educated workforce to succeed economically. 

The ongoing pandemic has shined a light on vast racial disparities and gaping holes in supports for families of all backgrounds who need help. We owe it to our children to end our tolerance of high levels of child poverty and hardship and adopt policies that will help them thrive.

Rev. Starsky Wilson, DMin, is president and CEO of the Children’s Defense Fund. Follow him on Twitter: @RevDrStarsky

 Sharon Parrott is president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow her on Twitter: @ParrottCBPP