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By Marta Tienda, AAPSS President

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address. At the time, 19 percent of all U.S. residents were poor, including millions of children born during the baby boom.  In response, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which funded an expansive array of programs designed to improve life chances of poor people and people who live in poor places.  Head Start, a program that provides comprehensive early childhood education and nutrition and health services to low-income children, is a persisting legacy of Johnson’s Great Society programs, serving millions of children and families across all 50 states and U.S. territories. Given the formidable investment in anti-poverty programs serving youth since 1965, it is stunning that 16 percent of youth under age 18 fell below the poverty rate at that time; for Blacks and Hispanics, the rates are higher still, 26 and 23 percent, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, the 2020 poverty rate for seniors—many of whom were children when the war on poverty began—was 9 percent, thanks to the income guarantees provided by Social Security and health benefits provided by Medicare—another legacy of Johnson’s Great Society programs.

The scientific evidence about the long-term deleterious consequences of growing up poor is incontrovertible: children reared in poverty face a high risk of developmental delays, which in turn increase the odds of academic underachievement, poor health, and behavioral adjustment problems. Longer exposures to economic deprivation compound these difficulties and undermine the chances that youth will become economically and socially productive adults.  It doesn’t have to be this way for children born in the world’s richest nation.  Two years ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) released a report, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, that addressed whether it was possible to cut child poverty in half and, if so, how the goal could be achieved.  The good news is not only that child poverty can be cut in half, but also that policy instruments already exist to realize the goal.  A pair of recent AAPSS webinars highlighted the necessary conditions to reduce child poverty.  Two important points stand out in light of the current political wrangling about the so-called social infrastructure bill.  First, reducing child poverty requires a multi-pronged approach that includes expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), childcare subsidies, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and a child allowance, like those passed as part of the COVID relief program.

What’s more, investments in child poverty reduction pay for themselves by cutting future costs associated with public assistance use, encounters with the criminal justice system, educational remediation, underemployment and, importantly, generating higher tax revenues from productive employment.

I emphasize the words investments and costs deliberately to bring into question the current discussion about the infrastructure bills before Congress.  There appears to be consensus about the need for the physical infrastructure bill, but much discord about the social infrastructure bill that is wide-ranging in its scope, including desperately needed and proven benefits of investing in programs to reduce child poverty.  But the language has shifted from investment to spending.  Words matter.  Investments generate returns and the NAS report concluded that investments in children pay for themselves both by preventing costly adverse outcomes and promoting economic productivity.  But there is additional reason to worry.  The Urban Institute’s report on federal expenditures on children, Kids’ Share 2020, projects that children’s share of the federal budget will drop from 9.2 to 7.3 percent of the federal budget owing to baked-in commitments to Medicare, Social Security, and interest payments on the debt.

Seniors have a powerful advocate in AARP, with ample resources to lobby and advocate on behalf of their growing constituency as the U.S. population ages.  There is no comparable national organization for youth.  But Marion Wright Edelman, the 2022 recipient of the Moynihan Prize, has laid the foundation for amplifying voices to advocate on behalf of children.  It is my hope that her powerful voice will inspire not only more research and ANNALS volumes dedicated to children and youth, but also collaborations across research organizations and philanthropic organizations dedicated to improving economic opportunities for children and youth.  Young people today are coming of age in an aging society, and it is critical to ensure they share in the economic opportunities enjoyed by boomers and their predecessors.

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