Last week, TCF’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative co-hosted an event, Inequality Begins at Birth, with the Roosevelt Institute and the Academic Pediatric Association.
The well-attended panels brought together dozens of child poverty experts to discuss solutions for working parents and safety net options for families.
In case you missed it, here are seven of our most important takeaways from the conference:
Being Born Poor Is Physically Harmful
Those who are born poor face all sorts of structural barriers, such as a lack of access to quality education, preventing them from overcoming their plight. Less well-known are the actual physiological effects of poverty that children carry with them throughout life.
Dr. David Keller, from the APA’s task force on child poverty, revealed biology isn’t just destiny by introducing a discussion on epigenetics, an entire field devoted to the study of how the genetic code interacts with its environment, especially during early childhood. This is important because over 90 percent of brain development occurs by age five.
The toxic stress of poverty creates permanent changes in brain size and structure for a developing child, proving that being born poor literally hurts.
Read, Read, and Read
If brain development (and inequality, for that matter) begins at age zero, then so, too, should education. Yolanda Minor of Save The Children, which provides home visits to low-income households, spoke about the salutary effects of reading to children, even before they start speaking.
We need more reading programs because words matter. The graph below reveals the connection between the number of words heard by children and their family’s income level.
But little fault can be placed on the families themselves–as Minor states, “I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want to give a head start, they just don’t know how.” Home visiting programs provide a wealth of benefits, including both information and support that families need.
Not Even Child Poverty Is Distributed Equally
Not only are children the poorest demographic in America, the youngest children are the poorest.
Although there is a great amount of public investment in K-12 education, the least is spent on children ages 0 to 5, the most undercapitalized group in the nation. As we have seen, programs that give kids an early start work and have a high rate of return.
Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement
People who are working full-time remain poor—though they are taking opportunities, opportunities are not giving back. The education and productivity of low-wage workers may be increasing, but their wages are not keeping up.
Not only will raising the minimum wage help fix this contradiction in American values, so will increasing the quality of low-income jobs. Lifting children out of poverty goes hand-in-hand with fairly rewarding their hard-working parents.
Fair Job Conditions
“You should never have to make the decision between being a responsible parent or a dedicated employee,” Avis Jones DeWeever states, but the conditions of low-wage work undermines this simple right. Few employers provide paid family leave and without subsidized child-care in place, many women lose their jobs solely because they are also mothers. We need to uphold labor laws we already have, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, and implement new ones, such as paid leave.
The truth is, using government programs to bring down poverty is nothing new, but it has been proven to work. Looking all the way back to 1935, FDR’s Social Security Act lifted a whole demographic of elderly people out of poverty.
Now, we just need to do the same with our children. Reagan’s saying, that we “fought a war on poverty and poverty won” is simply not supported by the evidence. In 2012, the federal safety net kept over 40 million people out of poverty, cutting it in half.
Check out this article, which aptly debunks myths about our safety net. We know what works, and it’s not less government programs.
Looking Forward to Cash Allowances
Although we have safety net programs that we know work, it is important to also look forward to innovative pilot programs. The imperative question is no longer, “what works?” but rather, “what can work better?”
The idea of cash allowances, or giving cash directly to the poor, were discussed many times during the conference. Evidence debunks the myth that the money would go to drugs and alcohol.
One of the panelists, Joanna Cruz, a single working mother, is a fan of this idea. She listed multiple ways she could use a mere $350 per month, including setting money aside for her daughter to pursue ministry work after high school.
The benefit of cash allowances is that they have the potential to empower individual agency– as Joanna puts it most succinctly, “My goals are not the same as the next person’s…people need to stop categorizing all of us together.”
Cash allows different people in completely different environments to do what’s best for them.
Although child poverty is a dire issue our country has to deal with, we have a good idea of what has to be done. The difficulty will be in moving past politics and looking at the evidence itself.
Keep an eye out for more discussion from us about this topic in the coming weeks, as we attempt to move forward in one of this country’s most pressing issues.