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Growing Child Poverty in America: There Is Simply No Excuse

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American families should be working their way into the middle class, not falling out of it. Yet today, families are living month to month, hoping their car doesn't break down because they have no idea where they'd find the money to fix it, and desperately trying to keep from losing their home. And, those are the lucky ones who have a job.

According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 16.4 million children, or 22 percent of our nation's children, living in poverty (which is defined as a family of four with income below $22,000 a year). In just three years, the recession has increased the number of children living in poverty by 3 million -- the equivalent of filling every seat at Lambeau Field, the football stadium of the NFL Champion Green Bay Packers, with nothing other than children in poverty at every home game over five seasons (41 games).

There is simply no excuse. The reality is that not one single child in America should go to bed feeling the pangs of hunger or forced to live on the streets because they have lost their homes. And today, poverty isn't something that just afflicts people who live in our inner cities or in poor, rural areas. It's not something that just afflicts people of one color or ethnicity. It's striking people who never imagined that they could find themselves telling their kids that they don't have any food in the refrigerator or that the electricity has been shut off. We don't have a shortage of work ethic in this country; we have a shortage of work.

It is no wonder that American voters, by nearly a 3-to-1 margin, believe the lives of children have become worse over the last decade. And the ramifications for our nation's future are disturbing. In a testimony before Congress by Harry Holzer of the Urban Institute, he estimates:

[T]he costs to the United States associated with childhood poverty total about $500 billion per year, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP. More specifically, we estimate that childhood poverty each year:

  • Reduces productivity and economic output by about 1.3 percent of GDP;
  • Raises the costs of crime by 1.3 percent of GDP; and
  • Raises health expenditures and reduces the value of health by 1.2 percent of GDP.

Investing in our children is investing in America and our future. When we help children rise out of poverty and grow and succeed, we are paving the way for our country's next generation of workers and leaders. We know how to do it, and when it comes to children, we have historically done it on a bipartisan basis. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), for example, was supported by President Ronald Reagan and has been supported by every president since, including President Barack Obama. According to the Census Bureau, the EITC kept another 3 million children from falling into poverty in 2010. It works.

When the Congress undertook the challenge of millions of children lacking health insurance in 1997, President Bill Clinton worked with a Republican-led Congress and with bipartisan legislators like Senators Edward Kennedy, Orrin Hatch, Jay Rockefeller and John Chafee to pass the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The uninsured rate for children living below 200 percent of poverty has dropped in half and, in conjunction with Medicaid, CHIP has helped reduce the uninsured rate for children to below 10 percent. So while the recession caused the child poverty rate to jump by 3 million children between 2007 and 2010, and while children covered by private insurance dropped by 5 million over the same period, the uninsured rate for children actually dropped by half-a-million children during the same period as both Medicaid and CHIP responded to the economic crisis. The two children's health coverage programs work and are a success story.

Some argue that the problem of overcoming child poverty is just too hard and something our nation simply cannot tackle. However, we must reject such defeatist notions and can look across the "pond" to our friends in Great Britain, who successfully took on the challenge laid out by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999 to combat child poverty through a series of measures including early childhood education, child care, tax credits and work support for families, successfully cutting the child poverty rate by more than half. As the new coalition government led by the conservative Tory Party's leader David Cameron came into power in May 2010 amidst urgent economic woes, Cameron has maintained this commitment to children in the face of other budget cuts, preserving and even expanding early education, and maintaining other family supports that had proven so successful. Both Democrats and Republicans in our country could learn from our own and Great Britain's winning, successful and bipartisan models.

One lesson is clear: supporting our nation's children isn't just the right thing to do -- it's one of the best investments we can make as a nation. And yet, our nation's leaders just cut the federal share of spending on our nation's children from 9.2 percent in 2010 to 8.4 percent in 2011. You simply can't expect returns on investments you don't make, and it's time we started investing in our children again. If we care about our future, there is simply no excuse.