THE BLOG
01/15/2014 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

Tackling Child Poverty: Having That Vision Thing

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States" as something that "can and must be done." Despite a group of defeatists declaring failure, the fact is that major progress has been made in this battle.

As Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently noted, "President Lyndon Johnson deserves great credit for declaring the war and for skillfully pushing legislation through Congress that established a major set of programs designed to serve the poor. Two cheers for President Johnson."

Rather than accepting rampant poverty amidst plenty, President Johnson provided the vision and leadership to tackle the problem and he established a goal and policy agenda that, in part, achieved some important successes. In fact, according to Haskins, poverty in our nation "declined by 30 percent within five years of Johnson's declaration of war in 1964" -- a rather astounding accomplishment.

For our nation's senior citizens, he points out, "By increasing Social Security benefits, Johnson reduced elderly poverty to 25 percent in 1968 from 35.2 percent in 1959, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. Poverty among the elderly has continued to fall." In fact, the elderly poverty rate today stands at just 9.1 percent.

With leadership, focus, and determination, President Johnson worked with Congress to both expand Social Security and create Medicare and those two programs have successfully reduced poverty and improved the health and longevity of our nation's senior citizens.

Although children have not fared nearly as well over the half-century (thus, one of the major reasons Haskins gives just "two cheers" for President Johnson), there was a decade immediately after President Johnson's declaration of a "War on Poverty" where great progress was made in combatting child poverty.

According to Stephanie Coontz at the Council on Contemporary Families, the child poverty rate was nearly 25 percent in 1963 and was cut to 15 percent by the early 1970s. In fact, child poverty declined and child health improved as well due in large part to the passage of food stamps, child nutrition programs, and Medicaid during the Johnson Administration. As she writes, "Historically, it has required a combination of favorable employment trends and active government intervention to lower the percentage of people in poverty and raise living standards for the working middle class."

But, once the focus and commitment by our nation's leaders to fight child poverty receded, some of those important gains have eroded over the last 40 years. As a result, last year the Census Bureau estimated that 21.8 percent, or 16.1 million, of our nation's children live in poverty. Sadly, today's child poverty rate is almost as high as it was in 1963 and is a stunning 70 percent higher than that for all American citizens over the age of 18.

Looking at it from another perspective, if you sold every seat in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the largest stadium in the National Football League (NFL), for Super Bowl 2014 and then again for every single New York Giants and New York Jets home football game over the next 12 years, you would still not reach 16 million people. In other words, you could literally fill MetLife Stadium more than 194 times with the number of children living in poverty in our country.

In our great nation, there is simply no excuse for this. 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's 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.

Facing this reality, it is no surprise that, by a 67-26 percent margin, American voters have little or no confidence that our children's generation will have better lives than we do today and are deeply concerned about the multiple and compounding ways that poverty harms children.

In their analysis entitled "5 Ways Poverty Harms Children," David Murphey and Zakia Redd of Child Trends highlight some of the negative and long-term consequences poverty has on children. They include: (1) poverty harms the brain and other body systems; (2) poverty creates and widens achievement gaps; (3) poverty leads to poor physical, emotional, and behavioral health; (4) poor children are more likely to live in neighborhood with concentrated poverty, which is associated with numerous social ills; and, (5) poverty can harm children through the negative efforts it has or their families and their home environment.

A strong majority of Americans understand and strongly believe that, just as we have done for our nation's senior citizens, something more must be done to protect children. Therefore, even though American voters widely support cutting the federal budget deficit (which is also a children's issue because the next generation will bear the burden of the debt we leave behind), they believe that crafting a budget is about making choices and are strongly opposed to proposed cuts to federal spending on children that could drive up child poverty in the short-term (e.g., Medicaid, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and child care) or the long-term (e.g., education, Head Start, and pre-K programs).

For example, by a 68-26 percent margin, voters are opposed to cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Child Tax Credit in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. Although that indicates there is strong underlying support for these tax credits to families with children, the level of support rises to an overwhelming 88-10 percent for not just protecting these credits, but for going further and strengthening them when it is explained to voters that they "protect millions of children from falling into poverty every year."

This is important because we know the children poverty rate would be substantially worse if not for anti-poverty initiatives such as the EITC, the Child Tax Credit, and food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP). As Dr. Phillip Cohen at the University of Maryland explains, "Tax credits for low-wage jobs and dependent children -- which come as cash refunds to many poor families - reduce child poverty by 6.7 percent. Food Stamps bring the number down 3 percent. Those are effective government programs."

Therefore, rather than cutting food stamps, as both the House and Senate are currently considering in the Farm Bill, letting the unemployment insurance benefits expire, as Congress did last month, or consider cutting the Child Tax Credit, as Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) proposed last week, it would be far better for our nation's most vulnerable children and their families if our nation's political leaders would focus on and take steps to reduce child poverty rather than increase it.

A model for such an approach comes from "across the pond" in Great Britain, which successfully took on the challenge and pledge laid out by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999 to cut child poverty in half over a decade. After adopting the Child Poverty Target, Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University describes the British government's subsequent ambitious anti-poverty initiative as "consisted of three strands: a set of measures to promote work and 'make work pay'; increased financial support for families; and a series of investments in children."

According to Nancy Folbre at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Prime Minister Blair and the British Parliament undertook a series of initiatives, including raising the national minimum wage, expanding tax incentives to encourage single parents to move into paid employment, increasing other public benefits for parents, expanding universal preschool, and adopting regulations making it easier for parents of young children to request flexible work schedules.

As Waldfogel points out, although the British initially began with a higher child poverty rate than the United States in 1999, they successfully cut their child poverty rate in half to a low of 12 percent in 2009 while the rate tragically trended in the opposite direction in the United States and grew to 21 percent.

In an age of hyper-partisan politics, it is important to note that, although the Child Poverty Target was initially proposed by Prime Minister Blair and the Labour Party, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Britain are also supportive of the Child Poverty Target. As Waldfogel explains:

Although the anti-poverty reforms of the past decade were led by a Labour government, the commitment to end child poverty in Britain cuts across party lines. This commitment can be seen in the enactment of the Child Poverty Bill just prior to the May 2010 election. This landmark legislation, passed with the support of all three major political parties, committed future governments to the goal of ending child poverty in Britain and also set up a mechanism to monitor progress toward that goal -- a non-governmental Child Poverty Commission. Not only did the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats not oppose the bill; they lined up to speak in support.

In this country, we should also be able to bridge partisan divides and do better by our nation's children. Nobody -- no matter their political ideology -- should find it acceptable that 22 percent of our nation's children live in poverty. According to Mark Shriver of Save The Children, "Our children are losing the war because too many politicians say the right thing but don't have the political guts to do the right thing."

Consequently, it is time for our nation's leaders, including President Barack Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders in the Congress, to do the right thing and make a commitment to cut child poverty in America. Although it will not be easy, it is clearly doable, as the British have done so. In addition, the United States has more than achieved it for senior citizens. As Shriver says, "The statistics for the elderly prove we know how to reduce poverty. We have chosen to invest in seniors, not in children."

Fortunately, the American people are ready for someone to put forth a new vision and agenda that values children and families, rewards work, expands opportunities, and is both pro-growth and pro-child. In fact, by an overwhelming bipartisan 82-13 percent margin, American voters support the president and Congress committing to a plan to cut child poverty in half over the next decade (89-6 percent among Democrats and 76-19 percent among Republicans).

Fortunately, the American people understand that improving the lives of 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. They recognize a pathway to progress when they see it. The question is whether our nation's political leaders will see it too.