If, as we often say, children are our future, you would think we pursue policies to ensure that more of the nation’s children develop into healthy and productive citizens. Wait, you say, that is not the job of the federal government. Parents are responsible for their children. Allowing the government to get involved in their care and wellbeing would foster dependency and allow more parents to abdicate their responsibility for raising their children. There is much research that finds it is best that children are raised in healthy two-parent families who live far enough above the poverty line to provide their children with the food, resources and quality education that would ensure successful lives. However, social workers know that there are millions of children who are not in that situation.
According the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), more than 16 million American children (22%) live in households with incomes below the poverty line—that is $23,500 for a family of four. Imagine trying to raise a family of four with that. NCCP estimates it takes twice that amount to provide basic necessities for a family of four and estimates roughly 45 million children live in low-income households. Needless to say, poverty rates for black and Latino children are disproportionately higher; however there are more poor non-Hispanic white children in the United States than poor black or Latino children.
Naysayers would tell you that poverty in the United States is not as bad as it is in other countries. That poor people in the United States own homes, drive cars, have televisions and air conditioning. Compare that to some third world country and you’ll really understand what true poverty is. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) compared poverty rates in the United States with 35 developed countries and found that we rank 34th out 35th in the percentage of children who live in poverty-level households. UNICEF uses a relative poverty rate of 50 percent of the country’s median income.
We know why more American children are living in low-income households. Our economy is still recovering from the Great Recession and millions of Americans are mired in long-term unemployment. Real wages for middle -and low-income families have been stagnant for decades. Inequality continues to soar as tax policies have rewarded capital gains with lower marginal rates. When the economy does produce jobs, too many of the new jobs are part-time or are paying much less than the jobs they are replacing.
The only way for children to survive under these circumstances is to have a strong safety net that will assist families who are not able to earn a decent living. As Jared Bernstein has pointed out, food stamps have lessened the damage to kids. So, how has the federal government responded to the hardship facing children in the United States? By reducing federal spending on children by $2 billion in 2011—the first year federal spending on children has declined in 30 years. Spending was expected to be lower in 2012 as the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding is exhausted.
States cannot make up the difference. The federal government must bear the brunt of social welfare spending as states compete with each other to reduce taxes in order to attract businesses. States also lower social welfare benefits in order to avoid attracting the poor from neighboring states. Harvard scholar Paul E. Peterson described the phenomenon as a “race to the bottom” in his book, The Price of Federalism. The federal government has devolved much of social welfare policy decisions to the states but it cannot absolve itself of its responsibility to provide an adequate safety net.
Poor children are certainly deserving of assistance from the federal government. Kids do not get to choose their parents. They do not get to choose the neighborhoods they live in nor the elementary schools where they will receive their fundamental knowledge. They do not enter the world personally responsible individuals. Oh yeah, they don’t vote. And many of their parents do not vote. Yet another reason why social workers need to be more politically active.
Written by Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy