Use What We’ve Learned to End Child Poverty
Editor’s note: This piece was written by Dr. Olivia Golden. Dr. Golden is the former commissioner for children, youth and families and assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She served most recently for almost nine years as the Executive Director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a member of CHN. This piece was distributed by the Foundation for Child Development and is cross-posted with permission.
Child poverty more than doubled from 2021 to 2022, children and their parents are now losing health care coverage, and child care programs across the country are at heightened risk of closure — all because successful pandemic-era policies have ended or are ending. That’s the bad news, and it is devastating. Yet in thinking about how to move forward, the good news matters just as much: that the nation enacted an extraordinary package of pro-child policies in the first place.
In the decades that I have worked on child and family policy, the counter-arguments to investment in children — distrust of government, the belief that deserving individuals succeed alone, over-reliance on the private market, and myths about parents of color grounded in racism, xenophobia, and misogyny — have seemed so deeply rooted in American history and politics that only incremental progress was possible. Thus, child poverty rates in the United States have been persistently high for decades.
Children are typically the poorest of any age group, Census data show, and the poverty rates of Black, Latino/a, and immigrant children are often two or three times that of White children. Even in families just above the poverty line, the combination of inadequate public investment, weak job benefits, and discrimination in the labor market means that far too many children — especially children of color — grow up with the hardship and stress caused by insufficient income. Compared to other middle- and high-income countries, the United States is typically at or near the bottom on child poverty and crucial supports for families and children, such as child care, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days.
These historic policy failures aren’t just data points. They undercut the nation’s future. Poverty and low income harm children’s long-term health and ability to thrive at school and work. As the United States ages, the consequences get worse: a smaller number of children — one million fewer in 2020 than in 2010 — will grow up to support an increasing senior population.
So it’s a big deal that the nation got so close to ending child poverty, cutting it in half for the first time ever. And it’s critical that we build back the momentum that got us there.
If we understand how the temporary reforms came about, we will be in a better position to restore them when the time is right.
AN EXTRAORDINARY BREAK WITH HISTORY
The policies passed as part of the 2020-21 response to the pandemic represented an extraordinary break with the nation’s history. They comprehensively addressed various aspects of the stresses facing families:
- inadequate income (the refundable Child Tax Credit, improvements to unemployment insurance, the economic stabilization grants)
- the near-collapse of the child care system (very large temporary boost in funding for child care assistance)
- sharply rising hunger (boosts to food assistance and a new pandemic program directly targeted to children)
- the urgent need for health care for children and families (Medicaid improvements to stabilize coverage).
Together, these policies reduced child poverty to 5%, the lowest level ever recorded by the Census Bureau. They also reduced food insecurity and hunger, improved health care coverage, stabilized housing, and supported child care wages and parents’ access to care.
Clearly, the COVID pandemic and associated recession created a sudden appetite for change in Congress, Once the Biden-Harris administration took office in January 2021, the initial responses were greatly strengthened by the full package of proposals that made up the American Rescue Plan Act. Having slow-motion failure turn into urgent crisis surely created an opportunity.
As I’ve had the opportunity over the past several months to talk with nearly 20 advocates, experts, activists, and organizers, I’ve taken away three lessons from 2020-21. All three help point the way to the future.
LESSON 1: EXPAND COALITIONS
Many of the leaders called out the value of coalitions expanding to include not only parents but providers. For example, the Care Can’t Wait Coalition brings together a wide range of groups in support of child care, paid family and medical leave, and home care for elderly and disabled people. It also engaged unions and other organizations that represent child care and home care providers — resulting in expanded field capacity and reach. This approach to coalition-building aligns with a long-time research finding in the early childhood field: that families and caregivers play the central role in children’s wellbeing. The powerful insight behind Care Can’t Wait is that advocacy, not just programs, should be structured around parents and workers together.
Looking ahead, we need to sustain parent-worker coalitions and seize opportunities to expand even further — connecting to partners in the racial justice, immigrant justice, disability justice, and youth justice movements. All have a stake in the future of children, families, and caregivers. And all are needed in a nation where parents of children under 18 make up only about 30% of voters.
LESSON 2: CENTER PEOPLE MOST DIRECTLY AFFECTED
A second lesson is the power of centering the people most directly affected by historic policy failures: parents, families, and child care workers — all disproportionately likely to be people of color experiencing low incomes and badly paid jobs. One example is the expansion of parent organizing over the last several years, bringing more support to the enactment of state and national policy reforms. Historically, skeptics have argued that it’s hard to organize parents of young children because they are so busy — but today’s successful organizers (such as Mothering Justice, Parent Voices, MomsRising/Mamás con Poder, United Parent Leaders Action Network, and Center for Community Change) respond that parents are deeply motivated to make the world better for their children.
Centering parents and caregivers also strengthens the design and implementation of policy. For example, the Child Tax Credit easily could have left millions of children behind. Making the credit refundable and including children whose parents use alternative tax numbers were the key policy moves to ensure that nearly all families were eligible. Creating user-friendly options for providing information to the IRS helped families actually get the benefit. And as the pandemic continued, ongoing feedback loops (such as parent surveys and input from groups working with parents) continually improved implementation. Ultimately, the Child Tax Credit reached a large majority of low-income families and successfully reduced poverty.
Future efforts will benefit from more parent organizing, more organizing of workers and students that also includes their roles as parents, and bringing parents and workers more fully into coalitions that address state and national policy. Sustained success demands expertise from all vantage points: lived experience front and center, plus on-the-ground organizing, state advocacy, national advocacy, and policy development.
LESSON 3: SUSTAIN EFFORT
A third lesson is the importance of sustained effort over time, so that coalitions, advocates, and policy champions are ready for unexpected opportunities. When the Administration and Congress needed a plan to get money rapidly into the hands of families who were suffering, the decades of work on the Child Tax Credit meant that a proposal was ready to be fine-tuned. When the COVID crisis demanded big reforms so that Americans could stay home when they were ill, more than a decade of innovation in states and several years of deliberation on the Hill and in national and state coalitions made it possible to rapidly develop a Paid Family and Medical Leave proposal that, while not yet enacted, made it further than ever before.
In 2020 and 2021, while I was executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), I saw firsthand the payoff from sustained commitment over time. In spring 2020, as child care programs closed and staff left the field of early care and education — threatening the very existence of a fragile system — CLASP worked with our partners at the National Women’s Law Center to analyze the amount of money needed in immediate pandemic aid to keep the child care sector afloat. The answer was $50 billion, many times the amount of federal dollars ever before invested in child care. Yet this number was widely accepted and successfully achieved through several rounds of pandemic response legislation. Neither the conception and research design of the report nor its warm reception by Congress could have happened in that moment of crisis without years of work to create a shared understanding of the child care industry, its fragile state, and potential policy solutions.
There’s an obvious lesson here for funders, one that the leaders I talked with underlined over and over: Building a solid foundation requires years of steady funding, sometimes with results and sometimes without, along with the flexibility to seize unexpected opportunities.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The passionate and committed leaders, organizers, advocates, and public officials who cut child poverty in half in just a year are an inspiration to me. As recently as 2019, the National Academy of Sciences reported that child poverty could be cut in half over 10 years —yet it happened in one-tenth that time, along with policy reforms that improved parents’ and children’s health, nutrition, and child care.
After these successes, we now know that the myths and failures of the past don’t define what is possible for America’s children.
We have extensive new evidence that the policies enacted during the pandemic worked. And while the failure to make such successful policies permanent feels devastating, we know what to do next: sustain the momentum, build coalitions for the future, and end a long and shameful history of U.S. policy failure. It’s time to improve the lives of a generation of children and families and set the future of the nation on a course toward success.