Low income doesn’t mean low priority

By Scott Harris

The media rarely shines a camera light on low-income children, yet many have been affected the worst by the deep recession our nation is in. Fourteen million American children live below the poverty line, 6.2 million of which live in “deep” poverty, meaning their households earn less than half of the poverty line. There were almost one million more children in poverty in 2009 than there were in 2008, and trends suggest that we will set, at the end of 2010, a dreadful record: the first time America will have more than one million children drop into poverty in the post-World War II era.

Regardless of your political affiliation, regardless of your social philosophy, all Americans can agree that we should do everything within our power to guarantee this goal: every child, no matter what socioeconomic background, should have the tools to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, right now, we are failing. There are so many things that need to be done in order to put children back on the forefront of our national dialogue, with far too many for one editorial, but there are some things that we can do right now to stabilize the situation for low-income children put at an even more severe disadvantage because of the collapse of the housing and financial markets.

First, enhancing the work opportunities and benefits for working-class parents is a proven strategy for combating child poverty. Expanding long-established programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit will be instrumental in placing much-needed money into the pockets of people who spend it overwhelmingly on food and other household essentials. Even a full-time job and a boost from these two tax credits is often not enough to keep low-income families out of poverty, and so one of the most important keys to watch as Congress considers re-authorization for food stamps is that spending stays at least consistent with food inflation over the past year. Increasing food stamp spending is also one of the best ways to stimulate the economy, with a return of $1.72 for every dollar spent according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

As many of us know, subprime lending was disproportionately aimed at low-income families who have now lost their homes. Rent prices in many residential metropolises are on the rise due to higher demand, as well.

So, second, housing assistance programs, though generally administered on the state level, could use a boost from the federal government.

Third, low-income children, by their 10th birthday, are already two grade levels below their middle- and high-income peers in reading and math proficiency. They are even further behind by the time they would be graduating (as far too many never reach that point). Early education and care have become a critical aspect of ensuring that children can reach their potential, and the staffing and facilities needed are there for the taking.

This year, Congress and states around the country should launch an unprecedented effort to expand early education opportunities for low-income children. Early Head Start, a program for infant and toddlers, and Head Start, a program for children generally between age 2 and 5, ought to receive a significant boost in federal funding.

Additionally, increasing subsidies for child care for parents who work more than 25 hours a week, which the Center for American Progress says is “the most vital, yet least funded chain link between family income and child education,” means that, even out of school, children can remain in a secure, educational environment. Congress can also help states and local governments keep after-school youth programs aimed at keeping at-risk children off the streets.

Fourth, stable access to health care throughout the first 18 years of life is also essential. Currently our country is in the middle of an uncertain period of a year-long insurance reform effort, so it is possible that the situation could change in short order. But, regardless of the outcome of insurance reform, existing programs to keep low-income children insured, healthy and in school must be protected.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) should be preserved until 2019 if the current insurance reform legislation passes, in order to give time for federal lawmakers to make sure that children will receive at least as many benefits under the new system as they did under CHIP. If insurance reform ultimately fails, Congress should take the lead in increasing CHIP federal funding and pushing states to remove unnecessary barriers to entry, like mandatory re-enrollment.

Though a scattered list of proposals may seem like it could not significantly affect the lives of America’s next generation of low-income children, the simple guarantees of three meals a day, a roof over their head, access to health care and the chance to start an education on the same level as other income groups is something that has been lost in our current recession.

Perhaps the most startling fact is that these proposals will cost less than a third of what TARP and the auto bailout cost. If we can bail out Wall Street, if we can keep car companies afloat and if “teabagger” rallies can get wall-to-wall news coverage, we ought to be able to find the time, the willpower and the money to make sure those 14 million American children can keep the promise of the dream that this country guarantees. As Congress looks toward evaluating these programs in the 2010 budget process, they should pay special attention for to what they can do for their silent constituency.

Scott Harris is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].