A long overdue plan to cut childhood poverty
The Covid relief bill now working its way through Congress will mark a transformation in the way this country treats poor children. It’s about damn time.
First the numbers, which vary ever-so-slightly from year-to-year, but which should be appalling to the citizens of the world’s richest country: 24 percent in Swain County, 26.6 percent in Macon, 22.5 percent in Jackson and 22.5 percent in Haywood. That the number of children living in poverty every single day of their lives. Right at one-fourth of the youngsters we see around our community every day.
And what is poverty? It’s defined as a family of four making less than $26,200 per year, but what that translates to is working families — many of them single-parent households — unable to pay for childcare, clothes, constantly living with food insecurity, fearing any unexpected automobile repair, medical emergency, dealing with embarrassing situations at school or when their kids play sports and the costs eat into the family’s meager earnings.
Can any citizen of this country who is in a comfortable economic position tell me how they could even imagine making a household of four work on $504 per week? No, because it’s just not feasible.
Look, we can discuss how some of those parents made bad choices, perhaps don’t have a great work ethic, didn’t take school seriously, all of those type arguments about how choices have consequences. Those are important issues and need to be addressed.
But let’s also look at wage stagnation, which has been the result of economic decisions made by lawmakers at the state and federal level. Anyone can google and find an avalanche of reports on wage statistics, and nearly every one reveals that real wages for those in the bottom 20 percent of earners has declined since the 1970s. Low-wage workers are working just as hard but have less buying power, hence the rising poverty level of their children.
And so despite all the important issues we can discuss about the why’s and the how’s of child poverty, the truth is that these children need help. The new proposal would pay families earning less than $150,000 per year $300 per month for every child under 6 and $250 for every child over 6 until that child reached 18 years of age. The benefit, according to one report, could cut child poverty in the U.S. by half, according to an analysis by Columbia University. More than 93 percent of U.S. children would receive a benefit under the plan.
Think about just one challenge facing every family and how much more dire it is for those in poverty — childcare. Last week’s cover story in The Smoky Mountain News went into great detail about our fragile childcare system in Western North Carolina. This payment won’t solve this issue for families, but it will certainly help parents concentrate on finding jobs or going back to school and earning the chance to enter a better-paying profession.
This new payment plan will be in place for one year, but many on both sides of the political spectrum think it’s long overdue and should become permanent. Some conservatives like that the monthly income encourages a spouse to stay home with their children instead of other benefits — like subsidies for childcare — which encourage parents to work away from home and leave child-rearing duties to daycares. Libertarians have argued that direct payments to families — unlike benefit plans that provide food or medical care —allow families to make their own decisions on how to spend the money. Since welfare benefits were slashed in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, many Democrats have argued for this kind of direct payments to families of poor children.
We know that moving children out of poverty gives them a much better chance at succeeding in life, earning their own way once they enter adulthood. When that happens, we save money on other social programs and the criminal justice system. If we lift children out of poverty, we forge a better society. Again, it’s about damn time.