If I had one question to insert into tonight’s presidential debate, I would ask the candidates what they propose to do about child poverty.
More than one among every five children lives in a poor home, according to the recent Census Bureau report. This is an increase of four percent in the last three years. The persistence of poverty in a rich country shames us, but there are other reasons to invest in child welfare beyond compassion. Because childhood poverty has lifelong consequences for personal development, ending child poverty is a smart investment.
As Peter Fisher, research director of the Iowa Policy Project put it this week in a report in the Des Moines Register:
Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to finish high school and go to college, more likely to end up in lower-wage jobs and more likely to rely on public assistance programs.
In the same report, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, often a “go-to” source for a conservative perspective on child welfare, points out, poverty robs the state of people “who could be much more productive and contribute more to the economy.”
In short, persistent child poverty permanently depresses the country’s productive capacity and its ability to take advantage of growth opportunities in future.
There has been little talk about poverty in the presidential campaign thus far. Candidates have avoided discussions of which programs would be cut in upcoming negotiations to reduce discretionary spending. Special nutrition programs that reduce poverty and improve child health have been targeted for cuts in the past year. So has the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
There are regional aspects to these concerns. Highly educated young people will continue to flock to cities such as Portland, Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles. But in the heartland communities are being hollowed out. New firms don’t start up in places that lack skilled workers; educated young people in those places want to migrate to the big cities because rewarding jobs are scarce at home.
In the United States we have effective public policies to minimize child poverty. Social Security and unemployment benefits keep several million children out of poverty. Although food stamps and the EITC are not counted in official poverty statistics, in government-sponsored alternative measures of poverty they are major drivers of poverty relief. As Peter Edelman estimates in his recent book So Rich, So Poor, something like 40 million people would be poor today if it were not for anti-poverty legislation that gave us food stamps, the EITC, and indexed social security to inflation.
Gentlemen: As you worry about reducing the budget deficit and cutting taxes, how will you insure that our country continues to focus on minimizing poverty among children? Take your time. Please be specific.