It’s been three decades since the Annie E. Casey Foundation published its first Kids Count report, an annual collection of statistics on child well-being attractively packaged and broken up by state to maximize local coverage. (The most recent edition tells West Virginians that they lead the nation in teens who are not in school or working and New Mexicans that a quarter of their children live in high-poverty neighborhoods.) After the presidency of Ronald Reagan had filled the airwaves with images of crack houses and tales of welfare queens, Kids Count was part of an advocacy effort to reframe the poverty debate around children. The reasons were clear: “kids” were sympathetic in a way that “poor people” were not.
The strategy enjoyed some success, most notably in expansions of children’s health insurance, largely financed by the federal government. But for the most part the poverty debate stayed focused on adults, especially after Bill Clinton captured the White House in 1992 with a pledge to “end welfare as we know it.” Conservatives insisted that poor adults work more, and liberals sought to “make work pay”—pay better, that is, through tax credits, child care, and increases in the minimum wage. The politics of poverty has continued to focus mostly on adults, with America’s high levels of child poverty largely ignored. It took coronavirus to bring the problem back into view, as child hunger reached levels three times higher than the worst of the Great Recession—a reminder of just how vulnerable America’s poor children are.1
In talking with scholars over the past year, I’ve been struck by how many substantive reasons there are for focusing on poor kids—even more now than three decades ago. Neuroscientists have shown how much of a child’s developmental trajectory is set during the first few years of life, before children even start school. Economists have shown that even a brief episode of poverty, especially in early childhood, can have life-long consequences—leading to fewer years of education, lower earnings, and worse health in adulthood. It’s also become harder to excuse America’s exceptional child poverty by arguing that the US enjoys exceptional mobility compared to other rich countries—that the poor have more chances to rise. Research suggests the American advantage in class fluidity has declined or disappeared, if it ever truly existed. Other rich countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada, have proven that child poverty can be cut and offered examples of how to cut it. A favorite tool is a cash grant known as a child allowance, a guaranteed income for families with kids. After Canada began offering up to $6,400 a year per child, its child poverty rate fell by a third.
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