For the infants and toddlers of the past few years, life in a pandemic is the only thing they know. Today’s children grow up in a climate surrounded by abnormalities. Yet for these children, the pandemic is not simply the curious background of their upbringing; COVID-19 has exacerbated child poverty in the US and the situation as a whole needs addressing. In 2019, 14.4% of children in the US lived in extreme poverty; this rate is one and half times higher than that of adults and 71% of this group were children of color. The most recent data in Virginia shows a child poverty rate of around 13%, putting the state 18th on the issue. Yet this past January, the child poverty rate rose to 17%, or 12.6 million children. Research done by UNICEF and the World Bank concludes that adults living with children are substantially more likely to report a loss of income and days gone without eating due to the financial strains of the pandemic than their childless counterparts. Generally speaking, the switch to online learning worsened barriers to high-quality education for low income families as these parents were forced to choose between employment and childcare.
Many readers are likely not surprised by this development. All anyone reads about today is how the pandemic has strained countless social issues. Child poverty, however, is a particularly insidious problem that merits consideration. Poorer households are statistically closer to environmental hazards, crime, and violence. They are also more often in areas of concentrated poverty and thus restricted to poorer-quality public schools. Parents of poor households report far higher levels of stress and depression than normal, and children living in poor households are more susceptible to neglect and abuse. For a child in poverty, both the neighborhood and household are constantly taxing areas and these higher levels of stress change the way children develop. The effects of poverty on neurological development put children at a greater risk of chronic illness, shortened life expectancy, obesity, and other health conditions.
These mental, physical, and household hazards have a tangible effect on children’s learning and development, and thus their future opportunities in life. Poorer children demonstrate noticeable lags in literacy by Kindergarten, flexible thinking and self-control by third grade, and attendance by eighth grade. In neighborhoods of poverty, poorer schools simply do not have the capacity to address these slips through the cracks. Children in poverty are seven times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers, whether to work a job, care for a family member, or due to unaddressed behavioral/academic issues.
So why pay special attention to child poverty? For starters, children clearly do not earn or choose a life of poverty and are given no chance to escape it. Child poverty is obviously unfair. Furthermore, the effects of poverty when started at such a young age are incredibly devastating. From an economic perspective, the lost productivity, criminal justice charges, and social programs associated with poverty cost the US about $1 trillion every year. The exact dollar amount is debated, but it is widely agreed that a dollar spent on education and other child services earns many times its worth back in shaping children to be better equipped to work in high quality jobs. On an individual level, the constant stressors of poverty reinforce its cyclical nature, creating one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) after another that simply leads to a worse future down the road. For a child experiencing all the things listed above, where is their life supposed to go? When are things supposed to turn around?
Luckily, solutions to child poverty are not out of intellectual reach. There are many different available policies both to mitigate the effects of child poverty and to prevent it. The vast majority of experts on the issue conclude that to reduce the damage done to children currently in poverty, mandating paid leave policies for workers, strengthening food assistance programs while increasing their benefits, raising the minimum wage, and guaranteeing free school meals are all potential avenues. On the other hand, investing more from state and federal budgets into public education, widening unemployment insurance eligibility, and expanding access to Medicaid are all cited as preventative measures to child poverty. The bottom line, either way, is that properly addressing child poverty means taking structural steps to disrupt generational poverty. Doing this means strengthening and innovating with America’s social safety net, not removing it. Children do not have the proper bootstraps with which to lift themselves up. Expansive action is necessary.
While vast applications and expansions of government spending programs may sound a bit radical, it is likely because up to this point they have only been effectively applied to the other end of the age demographic. The elderly, the demographic also with the highest voter turnout, receive billions of dollars from government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. In ten years, over half the federal budget will go toward this spending. This is certainly not a bad thing, but the point stands that such spending holds merit for youths as well.
Furthermore, the US knows these programs work. A Child Tax Credit program was repealed last month, despite projections that it would have kept 3.7 million children out of poverty. Generally speaking, spending about $100 billion every year for ten years on preventative government benefit programs could potentially reduce the child poverty rate by half. There are plenty of reasons why such preventative measures are politically difficult to adopt; younger demographics historically have the lowest voting turnout, as the pandemic begins to wind down voters are cautious about more government spending, and parents have shown increasing resistance to government programs that affect how they raise their children. But ultimately, this issue cannot be ignored any longer. Child poverty is an egregious problem that has only grown in recent years and policies exist that are known to be effective solutions. It will take a great amount of effort to implement proper solutions, but that is a worthwhile fight. History proves that in times of need, the US steps up to offer solutions by sewing up and widening the social safety net. Today’s children are long overdue for this validation.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.