We interrupt this nerve-wracking election season with all its startling commercials and irritating accusations and counter-accusations for an important public announcement.
Social safety nets work. The facts are irrefutable.
Nationwide, child poverty fell by 59% from 1980 to 2020. Programs that contributed to this dramatic drop included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Housing Benefit, Temporary Assistance for Families in Need, the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, federal tax credits, stimulus payments, and others.
Then in 2021, Hallelujah. Child poverty went down.
It fell by 46% from 9.7% to 5.2%.
Colorado’s situation mirrors that of the rest of the country, although state figures for the last year are not yet available.
“The national information in the Supplemental Poverty Measure captures the impact of safety-net programs like the Expanded 2021 Child Tax Credit, SNAP and other resources that help lift families above the poverty line,” said Sarah Hughes, vice president for research initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign .
These programs “lifted 3 million children out of poverty last year,” she said.
Suffice it to say that children are better off when their parents can afford to feed them. But until last year, millions of children living in poverty were considered acceptable collateral damage in Washington’s endless political war games.
Despite progress over the past year, child poverty persists, and in Colorado it is mostly concentrated in five rural counties in the south and southeast of the state. It’s also high in some neighborhoods in Denver and generally stays higher among communities of color, Hughes said.
And Colorado has its own problems of its own. Infrastructure for children across the state is broken.
A key factor in lifting families out of poverty is the opportunity for women to enter the labor market. Child care is inaccessible and unaffordable in Colorado.
“We have long waiting lists for childcare, especially for infants and young children,” Hughes said, “and year after year Colorado has been one of the most unaffordable states for childcare.
“The effect is that people stay out of the workforce because it costs more than they earn.”
Finding accommodation is also a big problem. A recent study found that Colorado has the sixth highest cost of housing in the country.
“This isn’t new to anyone,” Hughes said. “Housing is fundamental to a child’s well-being and the cost of housing here is astronomical. All solutions must prioritize housing for families with children.”
Education is another area where Colorado is failing children.
Funding per student for K-12 education is well below the national average, meaning all schools lack the resources needed to support students, and those who need the most help often get the least.
“Education is a long-term strategy to reduce poverty,” Hughes said. “It’s difficult to provide concrete data from year to year, but it’s undeniable that students who graduate high school with skills have the ability to rise above the poverty line in the future.”
One area where Colorado has shown innovative leadership is in its efforts to reduce teen birth rates through improved access to contraception.
“Research shows that giving people the power to plan their families, giving them the power to choose when they want to have children, gives them far greater economic security,” she said.
However, continued progress in reducing child poverty in Colorado and across the country is far from guaranteed.
“We are in real danger of losing ground,” said Hughes.
The biggest factor is the expiration of the expanded child tax credit enacted in 2021 as part of America’s COVID recovery plan. An attempt to extend it failed in Congress, and “now we’re back to business as usual,” Hughes said.
Those 3 million children who were lifted out of poverty last year may be back where they started.
Another program that provided important support to children in poverty was universal free school meals for all students. While this did not increase family income, it did ensure that children had access to healthy food.
It also expired this year.
Resource depletion is happening at the same time that we are witnessing a global economic crisis that is on the brink of recession.
And as usual, our children are thrown under the bus.
“With the exception of the Children’s Campaign, children generally don’t have lobbyists, so we don’t see their needs being prioritized,” Hughes said. “Congress is paying much more attention to the needs of older people and other interests with many lobbyists, like the oil and gas industry.”
However, voters can have a real impact in November.
In addition to passing the voting measure to provide free meals for all students, Coloradans can elect representatives who make children a priority by supporting programs such as the Child Tax Credit, public funding for accessible and affordable childcare, contraception and family planning resources, housing support, education and other measures that help parents to give their children a good future.
“What we have learned from the pandemic is that we know exactly how to tackle child poverty,” Hughes said. “The only question is whether we have the political will to do so.”
Diane Carman is a communications consultant based in Denver.
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