Today, about 15 million children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. This is why reducing childhood poverty is a top priority for some U.S. lawmakers, who are trying to identify the most effective ways to reverse course of this troubling trend.
On March 3, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies convened a hearing to consider the best ways to reduce childhood poverty.
Among those testifying was Kathryn Edin, William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Edin is one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers and co-directs the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at the Woodrow Wilson School.
In her opening statement, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03) highlighted the millions of children across the country who go to bed hungry, wake up cold, grow up with few resources, and struggle to succeed in their communities. In 2015, 9.6 million children lived in poverty, and 2 million lived in deep poverty, she explained.
“Let us remember that poverty has a pernicious impact on the development of children,” DeLauro said. “It is a lifelong scar, and I know our panelists today will elaborate on this.”
Edin was the first witness and provided an overview of her work since the 1990s, during which time she traveled the country interviewing hundreds of mothers about their economic survival strategies. This work eventually culminated in a book, “Making Ends Meet,” published on the eve of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). This was the legislation that ultimately disabled the main cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replaced it with a more stringent program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
In subsequent ethnographic work to find out what happened to many families cut off from AFDC, Edin learned that about a quarter of poor households with children are living virtually cashless lives at any given time. Edin and her collaborators developed three hypotheses behind the rise of this new form of poverty, which they called “extreme poverty,” which entails living on $2 per person per day in cash income.
The first was the death of the cash welfare system post-PRWORA in many parts of the country. The second was the increasing perilousness of low-wage work. And the third was housing instability, including emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that was tied to this instability.
To combat childhood poverty, Edin recommended a universal, or near-universal, child allowance, as proposed by the American Family Act 2019. This bill creates a new $300 per-month, per-child credit for children under 6 years of age and a $250 per-month, per-child credit for children under 17 years of age — increasing the credit for all children and, for the first time, making the credit fully refundable.
“The government could, and should, enact this allowance. Doing so could cut childhood poverty by nearly 40 percent, reduce the number of children in deep poverty by half, and completely eliminate extreme poverty for families with children,” Edin said.
In addition to Edin, witnesses at the hearing included:
- Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, professor of human development and social policy at Brandeis University
- Autumn Burke, assemblywoman for the California State Assembly's 62nd Assembly District
- Irwin Garfinkel, professor of contemporary urban problems at Columbia University
- Matt Weidinger, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute