How to fight child poverty in the wake of COVID-19
Bruce Lesley, Cara Baldari, Michelle DallafiorPoverty & Family Economics
Every facet of the lives of children and families are being disrupted during this historic public health and economic crisis. Unfortunately, both their short-term and long-term consequences and challenges are not being fully considered or discussed. This crisis is severe and will last for months or even years to come. Moreover, the resulting physical and mental health consequences, impact on education and child development, and economic implications of this calamity will last well beyond the coronavirus itself.
That is why First Focus Campaign for Children called on Congress to safeguard the physical, emotional, financial, and developmental health and well-being of our nation’s 74 million children with a specific package of legislative proposals across a range of issues — including child poverty and family economics.
There is real momentum toward addressing the high rate of child poverty in the United States and this disaster has only served to confirm that action to reduce child poverty and support family economic security is more necessary than ever. Congress has held three separate committee hearings on child poverty since the beginning of 2020, all of which highlighted that we know what is needed to address the problem, now there just has to be the political will to act.
In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, a non-partisan, evidence-based study that models a set of policy and program changes that, if implemented, would cut our child poverty rate in half within a decade. The policies in this roadmap, such as establishing a national monthly child allowance program, increasing SNAP benefits, housing vouchers, and other proven solutions would ensure that families have the resources needed to support their children’s healthy development and long-term success.
As our economy is shuttered and children remain out of school, the vulnerabilities within our system have become clear. Children and families living in poverty already lack the financial stability to consistently access nutritious food, stable housing, healthcare, and all of the resources needed to support a child’s healthy development. A public health crisis only exacerbates these needs when resources are scarce for everyone and expectedly makes the disparities in our current system even worse. We urge the following actions:
- Establish a National Child Poverty Target: Codify a national commitment to cut the U.S. child poverty rate in half within a decade, as proposed in the Child Poverty Reduction Act (S. 1630/H.R. 3381 in the 115th Congress).
- Provide Emergency TANF Assistance: Establish an emergency assistance fund of at least $5 billion to families with children, including children being cared for by kin, through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. This emergency assistance should be paired with a nationwide suspension of the requirement for state programs to comply with the Work Participation Rate and suspend the federal benefit time limit.
- Create Equity for Children in Recovery Rebate Payments: Establish equity in the current “recovery rebate” program to ensure all children and young adults, regardless of age and immigration status, receive the same rebate as adults. As the law is currently written, families receive only $500 per child under the age of 17, thus valuing children at just 41.7 percent the value of adults. A single parent with two children should not receive a smaller rebate ($2,200) than a married couple without children ($2,400). Newborns, young adults, foster youth, and college students who meet the income requirements should qualify for the full recovery rebate and there should be appropriate guidance and administrative mechanisms in place quickly to ensure the rebates reach all recipients swiftly to help meet their basic needs such as paying rent and putting food on the table while boosting the economy.
- Authorize Additional, Bigger, and Sustainable Direct Payments: In addition to fixing the current “rebate program,” authorize additional, substantial, and regularly distributed “recovery rebates” (at least $2,000 per month) that will reach those who need it most to make ends meet throughout this crisis. These payments should be bigger, distributed monthly, easily accessible, and should not turn off arbitrarily. Instead, the economic impact payments should be tied to the labor markets with flexibility for the states so that they provide some economic security during uncertain times and help to stimulate the economy in the short-term and during the anticipated months and years of recovery.
- Establish Fairness in Recovery Rebate Program: Address the exclusion of ITIN filers from eligibility for the “recovery rebates” so that some of our most vulnerable children in mixed-status families, including U.S. citizens, have access to this cash benefit during this historic public health and economic emergency to help pay for everyday needs such as food, housing, utilities, and more.
- Adopt Automatic Payment of “Recovery Rebates” to SSI Recipients with Dependents: The Department of Treasury and the U.S. Social Security Administration should adopt procedures so that Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients with dependents can easily obtain their recovery rebates automatically without filing additional information just as SSI recipients without dependents will.
- Expand Existing Refundable Tax Credits: Expand the successful Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to provide some permanent financial stability, delivered on a monthly basis, to households with children that have low- to moderate-income or no income. Such a permanent program would help to ensure a minimum set of resources regularly available to meet the rising costs of raising children and supporting healthy child development, serve as a buffer against the effects of a future crisis, and offer a mechanism to provide additional economic impact payments automatically should we experience another economic downturn. The CTC expansion would establish a regular monthly child allowance that the 2019 NAS report acknowledges as the most effective policy change to lift children out of poverty. A CTC expansion such as the proposed American Family Act (H.R. 1560/S.690) would lift 4 million children out of poverty and 1.6 million children out of deep poverty and benefit U.S. territories. The expansion of the EITC proposed in the Working Families Tax Relief Act (H.R. 3157/S. 1138) would reach families with children, low-income workers, qualified foster and homeless youth under age 25, and includes a federal matching mechanism for Puerto Rico’s new EITC.
- Provide Additional Resources for VITA and Outreach for the Recovery Rebates: Increase funding for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program ($12 million this tax season and an additional $5 million for next season) to ensure VITA sites have resources to expand service delivery to those lowest and middle-income people and those who ordinarily do not file tax returns, but now would need to complete a streamlined tax return to receive the “recovery rebate.” Congress also should provide additional funding to the Administration to ensure it can conduct outreach on the rebate program to identify all eligible individuals who qualify for the economic impact payment and can receive the benefit even if they do not have direct deposit or are homeless.
- Extend Paid Leave: Extend paid sick days and paid family and medical leave to all workers with full wage replacement, regardless of employer size.
- Further Improve Unemployment
- Providing a $10 billion investment for state Unemployment Insurance (UI) administration.
- Setting up a tiered system of UI benefits (similar to what was done during the Great Recession). Triggers should be related to the state of the economy, not ending at particular dates.
- Implementing structural UI reform, including mandatory 26 weeks of benefits for each state; mandatory wage replacement rates; mandatory work sharing; and fixing the Emergency Benefits program.
- Ensuring that UI benefits do not count against eligibility for the SNAP program.
- Provide Child Support Enforcement Flexibility: Provide states with flexibility in Child Support Enforcement program administration as well as discretion in non-payment enforcement measures against unemployed non-custodial parents.
For a full list of our specific policy recommendations across the array of children’s issues, check out our letter to Congress.