Childhood Poverty: Evidence-Based Solutions

By Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Earlier this month, the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives, First Focus, and the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University co-hosted a briefing with nationally recognized experts’ perspectives on child and intergenerational poverty. Children living in the United States are 69 percent more likely than adults to live in poverty. The United States is also the second out of 35 industrialized nations in terms of childhood poverty. The speakers at this briefing focused on the problem of childhood poverty and tried to identify evidence-based policies and solutions. Below is a summary of the National Prevention Science Coalitions’ presentation on childhood poverty, which was held in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 2017.

Dr. Ron Prinz, Distinguished Professor, Parenting & Family Research Center, University of South Carolina

Nationally, approximately 37 percent of children have had contact with child protective services (CPS) the age of 18. Children who are suffering from poverty have the highest risk of having CPS involved in their lives. While most of these children leave CPS with little impact, there are some that suffer adverse consequences as a result. Childhood poverty can cause increased risk of health issues, such as having an impact on brain development or injuries that are caused from abuse or neglect in the home. Childhood poverty can also have developmental effects, including decreased school readiness or lower academic achievement.

To help eradicate childhood poverty, the field of prevention science—a cross cutting area of many different disciplines—has accrued evidence about programs and policies that can help children and reduce prevalence. A 2009 Institute of Medicine report, entitled “Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People,” recommended evidenced-based prevention strategies that would minimize stigmas in communities to help to achieve better and healthier families and communities in poverty-stricken areas.

Evidence-based prevention programs have assisted families with programs like the home visitation program and the Nurse Family Partnership, which is for first-time mothers living in poverty. When programs like this work, they not only help individuals but they also save the system money. Parenting-based prevention of child maltreatment programs have shown a $7.48 return on each dollar invested, and parenting support to prevent teen substance abuse has shown a $5 return on the dollar, based on health economic analysis.

Evidence-based policies have been developed from decades of research. There are many programs for policymakers to choose from that appeal to different groups and different community needs. There are also many strategies that are proven to help the lives of children and families. The best programs cut across sectors—education and healthcare, for example—so that programs can assist in various aspects of a person’s life.

Dr. Ben Gibbs Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Brigham Young University

Dr. Gibbs is an early childhood expert who become involved in poverty reform five years ago when he learned a new bill in Utah that drew his attention and the attention of one of his students at the time. The bill focused on intergenerational poverty and acknowledged not all poverty was the same. The bill received bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats in Utah and allowed legislators to better address poverty in the state.

The bill identified two different forms of poverty: intergenerational poverty and situational poverty. Intergenerational poverty spans across two or more generations; in other words, there is a deeper history of poverty in an individual’s life. A person who is suffering from intergenerational poverty has been on public assistance for more than 12 months, and as a child, there were also records of the person having received public assistance for 12 months or more. The second type of poverty is situational poverty, which is traceable to a specific incident or time period in a person’s life. It usually occurs because of an unexpected hardship or traumatic event, such an illness, divorce, or sudden unemployment. Due to the brief nature of this poverty, state agencies are usually able to tackle the issue better.

The bill set up a commission to research intergenerational poverty and to derive data from the answers to help find a solution. Utah knew this would not be a quick process and set up five- and ten-year goals to address poverty in the state. Dr. Gibbs was an advisor on the commission, as was Utah’s Lieutenant Governor (LG), who played an integral role in getting the ball rolling. The LG identified poverty was most common in rural areas. He also discovered that not all counties would need the same solutions. So he went to the counties in the state that had the highest rates of poverty and spoke with the community in order to determine the best approach for each specific community. In developing community-specific plans, counties became more invested and interested in fixing the problem.

Data indicated that in the state of Utah, 25 percent of all adults between the age of 21 and 44 had received public assistance for at least a year. Second-generation public assistance recipients are those that were born from a generation that was considered impoverished. In order to break this cycle, there needed to be a focus on children. The commission focused on children, rather than on parents, and addressed four areas related to child well-being: (1) early childhood development; (2) health; (3) education; and (4) family economic stability. The five-year goal was to align systems involved in early childhood development to prepare children for schooling. The ten-year goal is to ensure that all children who are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults are emotionally, cognitively, and developmentally prepared for school. There was also a push in the commission to fill the gaps between what makes an economically-stable child successful versus a child living in poverty. Answers to this question will help move the commission forward in reaching its goals.

Bruce Lesley, President, First Focus

First Focus is a coalition which helps to move policy on the issue of childhood poverty in America. First Focus deals with where children stand on the federal level and makes appeals to Washington, D.C. about legislative or budget changes that need to be made and about policies being enacted that will affect children.

Children are one-quarter of the United States population, but targeted investments in child well-being are now less than 8 percent of all federal spending. Thus, two-thirds of government spending on children is actually made at the state and local level. Moreover, dollar amount spent has dropped over the past six years by 7.3 percent. According to a 2016 Urban Institute Report, which gave a projection of spending for the next ten years, only 2 percent of all new spending will be directed at children. However, this new spending is primarily for Medicaid; other programs will actually be receiving a decrease.

Currently, children are 69 percent more likely to live in poverty than adults. Of those children living in poverty, there is a significant racial disparity. Sixty-five percent of children living 200 percent below the poverty level are African Americans, while 31 percent are white children. Of children living 100 percent below the poverty level, 36 percent are black and 13 percent are white.

Progress can be made that would help children, but legislation has to be passed and government money needs to be spend. History can serve as an example for improvement. For example, in the 1960s, poverty rates among senior citizens were much higher than children. These poverty rates dropped dramatically when government expanded Social Security and established Medicare. Other countries can also serve as models for success. In 1999, for example, Prime Minister Tony Blair made a promise to cut childhood poverty in the United Kingdom by half in a 10-year span. Blair and his teams made comprehensive evaluations on their programs and made appropriate adjustments until the goal was met. This was accomplished by promoting work and making work pay by establishing a national minimum wage, creating the Working Families Tax Credit, and reducing payroll taxes for low-income families; raising incomes for families with children by creating Child Benefit, New Child Tax Credit for low income families, and New Child Trust Funds; and by making an overall investment in children. Comparatively, since the late 1990s, the United States poverty rates have increased while the United Kingdom’s have declined.

Childhood poverty also affects educational attainment. Currently, education in the United States, where childhood poverty rates are high, is lagging behind. Education spending is the lowest in the South and Southwest regions. These regions are also the poorest in the country. According to the National Education Center in Connecticut, these states are also not “trying” as vigilantly as other states because they have the lowest levels of support and social services for the children, as well as the lowest access to medical assistance. States in the South and Southwest do not have the resources needed to support its children.

Lesley explains that barriers need to be overcome in order to make children and childhood poverty an issue that politicians begin to care more about. There needs to be more grassroots campaigns, more communication between organizations, and more thinking about how policy changes will impact kids. Politicians need to focus on doing no harm to kids. The budget needs to be protected by the Congress and the Administration; kids should not be getting less than they need and polling shows that Americans generally agree.

First Focus is working on a bill to mirror the success that was achieved by the United Kingdom in 1999. The bill, the Child Poverty Reduction Act of 2015, would create a target and would provide information about how cutting poverty is faring. This would help with federal issues like the tax code; still, localities need to reform policies in order to deal with the issue of child poverty.