The Child Poverty Prescription

Every child deserves a fair chance. JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

Raising the minimum wage and investing in programs like WIC and SNAP can and will cure child poverty.

As a pediatrician, I routinely urge my patients’ parents to help their children live healthier lives by filing their annual tax returns. I admit that it’s an unusual prescription. But most parents I see are poor, and I don’t want them to miss getting their earned income tax credit – an important tool for both reducing child poverty and improving child health.

Few recognize how much this tax break matters to children and families. In 2013, the EITC lifted 6.2 million people – including 3.2 million children – out of poverty. In addition, it has been linked to fewer babies being born at unhealthy low weights, fewer premature births and increased prenatal care.

Children are the poorest members of our society. More than 16 million children in the United States – one in five – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. That puts their health, their development and their futures at great risk.
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Child poverty is linked to higher rates of asthma, obesity, infant mortality and a greater risk of injuries. Poor children are more likely to be exposed to chronic, toxic levels of stress that can alter their brain function. What’s more, early research shows poverty actually damages areas of developing brains that are important for critical thinking, reading, comprehension and language – making it harder for children to learn.

The result: Children are less able to succeed in school – and in life. And as they grow into adolescence and adulthood, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, drop out of high school, and earn lower wages.

It’s not a problem that affects kids in only some areas. Poverty is everywhere, in urban, rural and suburban areas

This is a disease we can’t ignore. Not only is poverty poisoning our children, it is costing our country $500 billion per year in lost productivity and poor health. We need to cure it, and we need to cure it now. Research now shows us that giving children a healthy start pays off in health and well-being. This is not just important for children and their families, but for society as a whole.

Impossible, you say. Not so. We’ve done it before.

Before the 1960s, America’s elderly were more impoverished than any other age group. We addressed this problem by increasing per capita Social Security expenditures dramatically and creating Medicare. Between 1960 and 1995, the poverty rate among people 65 and older fell from 35 percent to 10 percent. We can do the same for children by raising family income – the root of the problem – and alleviating the impacts of poverty on child health.

This isn’t new: We’re already doing this, to some extent. In 2013, anti-poverty tax policies like EITC and the Child Tax Credit lifted 5 million children out of poverty, cutting the childhood poverty rate by 40 percent. In 2015, Congress recognized the critical impacts of the EITC and the Child Tax Credit on low-income working families by making some of their key improvements permanent.
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Clearly, we can and should do more. According to a 2015 analysis conducted by the Urban Institute for the Children’s Defense Fund, we could cut child poverty by 60 percent, raising 6.6 million more children out of poverty. The treatment: investing in policies and programs that work:

Raise the minimum wage. Evidence shows that if you raise family income, people become better parents because they are less stressed and have more bandwidth to address their kids’ needs. One study found that increasing a family’s annual income by just $1,000 could dramatically improve children’s math and reading performance.

Protect and expand nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children or WIC improves birth outcomes, and children in WIC enter school ready to learn, showing better cognitive performance. Nearly half of all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP recipients are children, and children receiving SNAP have not only better health and educational outcomes but are also likely to be successful and self-sufficient in the future.

Invest in early childhood education programs. These have been shown to mitigate toxic stress by providing children with a nurturing, positive environment, cognitive stimulation and nutritious meals. Such programs yield returns on investment as high as 14 percent per year, while also lowering rates of remedial education and juvenile crime.

Increase access to affordable, high-quality child care. The federal government and states provide child care subsidies to low-income families with children under age 13. But because of limited funding, fewer than 1 in 5 eligible children benefit from child care subsidies.

We are on the right track. We have the evidence, so we know what works. Investing further in these policies and programs will yield rich returns, both in the health of our children and the benefits to our society.

We can and should cure child poverty. Each child deserves a fair chance at a healthy, productive life.

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