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A bridge, not a pier: childhood poverty in America

In his address to a joint session of Congress, President Biden detailed, in part, his American Family Plan. It represents a $1.8 trillion federal investment in families, but more specifically in our children. If passed, it has the potential to be transformative and, put simply, do an enormous amount of good.

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But before outlining how the AFP will impact the lives of children going forward, bear with me as I describe the lives of America’s children in pre-pandemic 2019.

First, try to imagine that some 10 million children lived in poverty and children of color and very young children were the poorest Americans.

In 2019, a family of four was considered poor if their annual income fell below $26,172 (less than $72 per day). And almost half of all the children living in poverty lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as a family of four with an annual income of $13,086. Some 3.6 million children under the age of 6 lived in poverty in 2019, and it is these youngest Americans who are being hit hardest during their years of greatest and most critical development.

All of the data above is pre-pandemic. What the COVID-19 plague has grimly exposed is how unequal our economy was then and remains still.

In 2019, families were working to take care of their children; however, we have come to realize that our economy is not only unjust and unequal, but has left millions of children behind. And we have done this despite knowing that investing in children and their healthy development helps not only the economy, but helps reduce racial disparities and increases opportunities for children.

According to an analysis by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy (CPSP) at Colombia University, since May 2020, as the coronavirus ravaged our nation, an additional eight million Americans, including 2.5 million children, have fallen into poverty. Today, more than 4 in 10 children live in households struggling to meet basic expenses, and between seven and 11 million children live in households in which they are unable to eat enough because of costs.

The pandemic, as indicated by the CPSP, has made this an unsparing year for America’s children, due in great part to the fact that their situation was already precarious. And it is this reality that forms the basis for Biden’s proposed safety net. It would make permanent the child tax credit, increasing it from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under 6, reducing child poverty by 45% overall. For Black children, it would be a reduction of 52% and among Native Americans 60%, and in the aggregate help some 65 million children.

The AFP would offer free quality care preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, a reform necessary for working parents, and one that would allow women (the primary caregivers) to return to the workforce. Preschool today represents a financial burden for countless working families and can cost up to $10,000 per year per child. Child care centers would also be provided with funding to improve their services and increase pay to a minimum of $15 per hour for employees of the pre-kindergarten programs.

The pandemic has also revealed how important our public schools are for low-income people and communities of color, for it is there that children obtain nutritious meals. The AFP will invest $45 billion in nutrition for children. As of 2019, some 29 million children received free and reduced-price meals during the school year, and that program will be expanded.

So the question now before us is: Given this extraordinary opportunity, will we build a bridge and not a pier to America’s children?

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.