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Opinion
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Guest Column
Learning to rethink poverty | Column
How poverty damages a child’s brain and what we can do about it.
President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11 in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan on March 11 in the Oval Office of the White House. [ MANDEL NGAN | AFP ]
Published Apr. 15

She was aghast, hands to her face, rocking back in disbelief. “You don’t have a children’s allowance in the United States?” Steph was a Canadian snowbird, Zooming into my book club meeting during this pandemic. “Who gets the allowance?” we asked. “Why, everyone with children does.” Now it was the Americans who were incredulous. Canada has greatly solved the problem of child poverty, while the United States still malingers.

Poverty can be cruel and mean, especially for a child. One out of every five children in Florida lives in poverty, totaling more than 870,000 children — and this was the count before the advent of the coronavirus. In Pinellas County alone, almost 30,000 children live in poverty. And the younger the child, the more likely they are to be poor.

Beth Hovind
Beth Hovind [ Provided ]

Child poverty is not random. While most poor children in the state are white, children of color are much more likely to be raised in poverty — a reminder of the inequitable distribution of resources in our society.

Increasing scientific research shows that child poverty creates serious hazards. Because we can now view brain development, we can clearly see that brain growth is different for the poor child. The Institute for Research on Poverty in its June 2019 article on “The Brain Science of Poverty and Its Policy Implications” reports the following:

Children, poor and non-poor, have similar-size brains at birth but around age 2 brain scans of poor versus non-poor children begin to show differences in the rate of brain growth. Poorer children’s brains grow slower and the parts of the brain that govern learning and behavior are the most affected.

But, the slow rates of brain growth do not appear to be permanent. Researchers see evidence that the effects of poverty on the brain can be reversed or corrected by identifying and offsetting negative environmental influences.

Poverty, for a family of three, means living on an income of less than $21,960, and most are living well below that. Working full time at the minimum wage brings home around $16,000 before taxes. This is at a time when the average rent in Pinellas County averages $900 a month, and more than 5,000 families are on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

Income instability is one of the major characteristics of the children of poverty. With no ability to cover even necessary daily expenses, the family faces frequent dislocation, homelessness, separation from supportive adults, frequent school changes and so forth.

In 2017, Congress asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to conduct a comprehensive study of child poverty in the United States and to identify evidence-based programs and policies to reduce the number of children living in poverty by half within 10 years. The results were published in “A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty,” which concluded that poverty causes negative outcomes for children, especially if it occurs in early childhood or persists through a large part of childhood.

To quote from the report: “Robust research evidence has shown that low income itself, rather than other conditions poor children face, is responsible for much of these negative impacts on children’s development.”

The committee found that some current anti-poverty programs are working and can improve children’s well-being, in particular:

1. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has increased education and outcomes.

2. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) has improved birth outcomes and child and adult health outcomes.

3. Public health insurance expansions have led to improvements in child and adult health, educational attainment, employment and earnings.

4. Housing assistance has allowed families to move into better neighborhoods and has improved educational and adult outcomes.

The Academies made these recommendations:

1. Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 40 percent.

2. Convert the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) to a fully refundable tax credit and focus on families with the lowest incomes and children under 5.

3. Raise the federal minimum wage to $10.25 an hour and index it to inflation. (Florida’s minimum will rise to $15 an hour in 2026.)

4. Institute a children’s allowance that pays $225 per month ($2,700 per year) to families with children under 18.

The American Rescue Act addresses these recommendations. While the minimum wage piece was withdrawn, the other pieces of the act are directly drawn from research. Poor children’s families will now receive $3,000 to 3,600 per child for the next year as a part of the refundable child tax credit — a credit non-poor households have been getting for several years but that the poor have been unable to claim. This will be administered nationally through the Internal Revenue Service (much like Social Security) to all families who file with the agency — bolstering their ability to adequately raise their child.

The Rescue Act raises SNAP (Food stamp) levels, improving children’s nutrition, and raises the Earned Income Tax Credit for those who are working for low wages. These programs successfully support children, families, single adults — those among us who have the least. And all within current existing programs — reinforcing those programs, researched and tested, that provide for those who need it the most.

We are learning to rethink poverty. We are invested in a wide variety of social service agencies who on a daily basis are dealing with the problems caused by poverty, while we have very few support systems to actually provide income to residents. Our traditional “welfare” program, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) provides only $305 a month — $3,650 a year — to a family of three. This does not even bring them close to the poverty level. The Florida Legislature determines this level of support.

Both sides of the aisle, President Joe Biden and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, support income-replacement programs that guarantee our low-income families a basic level of support, paid nationally through the IRS. These are positive steps to providing children what they need to grow into successful adults.

We know the damage that is happening to our children now, without a universal children’s allowance. We also know that we are spending the money on services to try to ameliorate the damage that can be more effectively solved by providing adequate financial support. The research is in. It is up to voters, now, to create the permanent pathway to eliminate child poverty. We will all benefit.

Beth Hovind, the former chair of the Poverty Action Team of the League of Women Voters-Florida, has 30 years of experience in local and state social service systems.