The annual Census Bureau report released earlier this month revealed that child poverty more than doubled in the United States last year, the largest single-year increase on record. The news feels less like a surprise and more like a confirmation, if not a deliberate choice.
Many federal pandemic relief programs in health care, food assistance, housing and child care — most notably the expanded child tax credit — have either expired or are set to expire, which in all likelihood will ensure that child poverty will continue to accelerate. The list also includes emergency rental assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program emergency allotments and Medicaid continuous coverage. The implications of letting these policies lapse without replacement, one after the other, will likely be felt for years to come.
A significant blow arrives on Sept. 30, when child care emergency-relief funding terminates. According to a Century Foundation report, 3.2 million children are expected to lose access to care in the coming months. Seventy thousand child care programs are likely to close, and more than 200,000 industry workers could lose their jobs. Child care and preschool costs have been soaring faster than inflation, and the surviving centers could be forced to raise their fees. The lack of accessible and affordable child care could pull more women out of the work force, potentially leading to higher inflation and a slower economic recovery.
We should not be surprised by the outcomes that follow from subjecting children and families to chronic deprivation. Over eight years, I conducted an ethnographic study examining the lives of children growing up in Kensington, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. Babies born in the neighborhood are expected to live to 71, which is 17 years less than babies born no more than four miles away in the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of Society Hill — and a life span on par with countries such as Egypt, Bhutan and Uzbekistan.
When I first met Emmanuel Coreano, a Puerto Rican student from Kensington, he was living with his disabled mother in a dilapidated row home that lacked hot water and electricity. The rooms were filthy and mold-ridden. The bathtub was at risk of falling through the cracked ceiling into the kitchen. One night, Emmanuel was sleeping when he woke up to a sharp pain. Tasting something metallic, he touched his lip, and in the glow of his phone screen he could see that his finger was stained with blood. A rat had bitten him.
Still, this was the best housing that his mother could find on her limited budget; she had no earnings and relied on Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. “I remember asking God to give me a happy home,” Emmanuel wrote in a poem. “One where the neighborhood was good, where I didn’t have to care about the anger in people’s hearts, where I didn’t have to worry about getting shot up in a park.”
Despite experiencing housing precarity and economic hardship, Emmanuel managed to graduate from El Centro de Estudiantes, a last-chance alternative high school, thanks to the support of caring educators. He was an adult when Donald Trump and Joe Biden enacted trillions of dollars of the most significant anti-poverty measures in decades — economic impact payments, expanded unemployment insurance and the expanded child tax credit. Tens of millions of Americans were kept out of poverty and economic insecurity as a result; in another world, a younger Emmanuel could have been one of them. The stark relief that pandemic programs brought to families is proof that poverty is not an intractable problem when there is sufficient political will.
The economist Amartya Sen has argued that poverty is not simply the condition of low income, it is also “the deprivation of basic capabilities,” which he defines as “the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value.” To guarantee such economic and social freedoms, we also need to reverse decades of privatization and austerity and invest in equitable public goods: education, health care, housing, child care, broadband, utilities, food and other sectors.
As a senior policy adviser for Bernie Sanders, who was then the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, I spent six months in 2021 helping my colleagues draft, revise and negotiate the details of the Build Back Better bill. We dreamed of achieving a feat akin to the New Deal, so it was devastating to watch the original $6 trillion, 10-year spending plan get hacked to $3.5 trillion, and then $1.75 trillion, only to die in the Senate. A dramatically pared-down version of that bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, made transformative investments, but nearly all of Build Back Better’s original measures were left out. We should recommit to finishing the job and passing an agenda that will reduce child poverty and make life more affordable.
It is also up to the states to do their part. Buoyed by Democratic trifectas, some have become bona fide laboratories of social democracy. Fourteen states have adopted a state-level child tax credit, with many featuring a fully refundable provision so that families with little to no income can benefit. This year, New Mexico has expanded free preschool seats and made child care free for families earning up to four times the federal poverty rate — roughly $120,000 for a family of four. In the upcoming fiscal year, Minnesota will pour more than $250 million of additional funding into early childhood education to reduce the costs of child care and create thousands of new preschool slots. This includes $10 million to supplement funding of the federal Head Start program, which serves children up to the age of 5 and should be bolstered by states. Today, nine states have universal free school breakfast and lunch on the books. Just last month, the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, established a $20 million initiative that will help fund grocery stores in food deserts.
Millions of children are in the predicament that Emmanuel Coreano was once in, and more will join them if we refuse to act. The government has a choice here. It can deliver cash transfers, enact public goods and establish a floor of livelihood where nobody suffers from poverty or want — or it can allow children and families to go hungry, unhoused, indebted and abandoned on the altar of the market. It is time to once again use our immense power and resources to reduce suffering and save lives.