America has cut poverty before — with political will, we can do it again
On Monday, the government convened lawmakers and child advocates, launched a new website and released other resources for parents and caregivers eligible for an expanded child tax credit — a game-changing policy improvement that experts predict will lift almost half of America’s children above the poverty line. Economic relief is on the way to millions of families whose lives have been challenged by the pandemic, and it recalls another pivotal moment in our nation’s history.
Nearly 90 summers ago, our nation’s leaders decided no longer to tolerate the impoverishment of an entire generation. They passed the Social Security Act, creating a permanent safety net for older Americans — many of whose final years had been defined by deprivation.
The Great Depression made elderly poverty a national crisis of unprecedented scale. Before Social Security, elderly people crowded the streets and poorhouses. Today, data show the commitment this country made so long ago enables 15 million older Americans to make ends meet each month. Without Social Security benefits, nearly 40 percent of people over 65 in the United States would be living in poverty.
The Great Depression was a crisis that birthed a promise. What if we made a similar promise to our children — by taking intentional steps to significantly cut child poverty — in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic? We can seize that opportunity now by making the recent expansion of the federal child tax credit permanent.
About 12 million U.S. children were living in poverty in 2019, according to the 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The annual report, which tracks the well-being of kids in every state, finds the pandemic could erase nearly a decade of progress in reducing child poverty since the Great Recession — unless policymakers act boldly to sustain the beginnings of a recovery.
Child poverty is linked with hunger, housing instability, chronic illness and academic challenges. Too many families with kids were already struggling to meet their basic needs before the pandemic, and the situation has worsened, disproportionately so for children of color. The health and economic crisis of the past year has inflicted additional trauma and highlighted disparities for millions of children unable to attend school in person and access the hot meals, preventative health screenings, counseling and other supportive services they would have found there.
Poverty isn’t inevitable. It is the result of policy choices. America chose to lift its seniors out of poverty with Social Security. We can make a similar choice to help families so our nation’s children don’t grow up in poverty — and have the opportunity to realize their true potential, fully contribute as members of society and even support this and future generations through their own contributions to Social Security.
We should make good on our nation’s values, and our elected leaders have made a down payment to that end. Starting next month, more than 30 million families with children will receive direct cash payments as part of the latest pandemic relief legislation. This proactive support will reach 88 percent of kids nationwide, a lifeline for parents trying to pay rent, buy food and clothes and meet other critical family needs. All told, from the first coronavirus relief package in 2020 to the American Rescue Plan, nearly half of all children will be lifted out of poverty — for now.
The historic expansion of the federal child tax credit, which has long had bipartisan support, is a huge and important step in the right direction. It will lift more than 4 million children above the poverty line, many of them kids of color. Tax credits are a proven solution to reducing poverty, improving child and maternal health and increasing overall family stability. Research shows they can significantly improve how healthy a person is in five years or less through better housing conditions, nutrition and health care access, especially for women and children. Solutions like this, long championed but too seldom passed, can change the trajectory of our children’s lives and should be the norm, not the exception.
The United States has the opportunity right now to make choices and priorities that can set a global standard for child well-being in a post-pandemic world. Lawmakers ought to be able to find common cause to ensure the largest one-year drop ever in child poverty is not followed by the largest-ever one-year surge.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on telling our children that their future is limitless and bright — and that anything is possible in the United States. Indeed, this nation has the resources to do better by all kids, just as we stepped up for seniors. By permanently expanding the child tax credit, we can turn the tragedy of the pandemic into a promise that a new generation will have the best possible start in life.
Lisa Hamilton is president and chief executive officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
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