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Nicholas Brake: Pandemic relief and other federal government proposals will uplift children

One of the greatest moral stains from the last decade is how U.S. policymakers at the federal and state level have turned their back on children in our society.

Perhaps it is because there is not a powerful children’s lobby or because children generally do not financially support political campaigns. The fact remains that the US is one of the world’s richest countries, yet our leaders accept levels of poverty among children, ranking 37th among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations barely ahead of last placed Turkey.

The U.S. poverty rate for school-age children is more than double the OECD average—and higher than any advanced industrial nation in Europe, North America or Asia.  A majority of public school children in 21 states were low-income in 2019. As a region, southern states have the greatest percentage of the total student population represented by low-income children—57 percent. Most districts with significant low-income populations spend less than their wealthy peers.

Nicholas Brake

A racial and ethnic divide accompanies poverty in most cases.  Of the overall children in poverty in the US, 36 percent are African American, 30 percent are Latino, and only 12 percent are white. 

The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30-40 percent worse among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier.

That is why the newly passed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief measure (American Rescue Plan), as well as proposals from the Biden White House to fund pre-K and childcare, are potential game-changers for children in the U.S. In fact, estimates say that the poorest one-fifth of households will see their incomes rise by 20 percent, cutting child poverty in half.

Much of the relief will come from the expansion of the child tax credit, which will repair the safety net by giving caregivers $300 a month for each child under six, and $250 a month for older kids — for at least the next year.  The monthly benefit is designed to help families manage unpredictable incomes and unpredictable expenses, like a child’s illness or a car repair. Currently, less than three percent of families receive any type of safety net, the lowest by far of any developed nation.

Expensive, yes. A worthy financial investment, yes. The evidence of similar efforts to negate childhood poverty in other parts of the world have been very successful. In 1991, after a cyclone leveled much of Bangladesh, leaders opted to emphasize investments in human capital and children as part of the recovery plan. The measure was successful in significantly slashing childhood poverty. In 1996 Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to reduce childhood poverty in the U.K. cut it in half in 10 years.

The relief measure is also wildly popular and bipartisan, outside of Congress that is. The bill passed with no Republican votes. And the Administration will face an uphill battle getting support for the other measures that benefit children such as universal pre-K.

Once again, the evidence strongly supports the expansion of high-quality pre-K for three and four-year-olds. Research by economist James Heckman has shown high-quality pre-K to be the most effective public investment that can be made. According to Heckman’s research, the programs generate a 13 percent annual return on investment because they reduce spending on criminal justice, special education, and health care down the road.

Collectively, these measures will do more for education than any federal reform effort focused on standardized testing. David Books, a conservative columnist at the New York Times called the relief measure the most important piece of legislation in our lifetime. Arguing that just like the 1981 the tax cuts of the Regan Revolution were the right tools to fight stagflation of the 1970s the American Rescue Plan is the right tool to fight a different set of problems in the current era.

Nicholas Brake, a former public school superintendent, is director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at Western Kentucky University and author of the Kentucky Education Policy Blog.

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