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A Counterintuitive Approach to Reducing Poverty

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Can government successfully intervene to raise incomes and reduce poverty? It's a heated but critical question. While social welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid, help lift low-income families out of poverty, in some cases they can produce a disincentive to make more money--known as the "cliff effect"--in which a modest increase in income could mean an equal or greater decrease in welfare benefit. In other words, some families could be worse off financially if they accept a small raise at work.

This is obviously problematic, but what is the solution?

Future of Children author Gordon L. Berlin suggests expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which was created to increase work incentives among the poor by reducing the federal taxes they owe and refunding any leftover tax credit through yearly tax returns. For those filing taxes this year, the maximum EITC for a family with three children is approximately $6,000, while those without children can receive a maximum of approximately $500. As President Obama acknowledged in his 2014 State of the Union Address, "few [policies] are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work ... but it doesn't do enough for single workers who don't have kids."

Berlin's policy recommendation addresses this concern. He argues for increasing the credit for all low-wage workers aged 21 to 54 who work full time--regardless of whether they have children or whether they are married, though the largest benefits would accrue to two-parent households in which both adults can work full-time. This policy would reduce poverty without distorting work incentives, as the earning supplement would progressively decrease with higher income. In effect, it could help transform a "cliff" into a steady slope of opportunity.

To learn more about this proposed policy, including how it could be paid for, see the Future of Children issue on The Next Generation of Anti-Poverty Strategies. We will return the topic of EITC expansion and how it can help children in our Spring 2014 Future of Children issue, "Helping Parents, Helping Children: Two-Generation Mechanisms."

Family Relationships Following the Great Recession

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Research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study suggests that stress or uncertainty about external circumstances can impact family relationships. One recent study by Dohoon Lee, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Irwin Garfinkel finds that mothers used more harsh parenting practices, such as corporal punishment, following the Great Recession. Moreover, macroeconomic conditions like consumer sentiment (that is, how people feel generally about the economy), rather than actual conditions (for example, local unemployment rate), are associated with harsh parenting.

 

Findings from another study suggest that macroeconomic stress has caused couples to delay or forego separation or divorce, especially among those hardest hit by the recession. Based on research presented in the Future of Children suggesting positive outcomes of marriage for children, such a finding could have good implications for low-conflict families but serious consequences for families experiencing violence or abuse.

 

Future of Children authors Philip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox explain that some low-income family intervention programs have begun to address how parents and partners can cope with the stress and uncertainty caused by external circumstances such as a dragging economy. The authors highlight one such program that has had encouraging early results. Participants in the Supporting Healthy Marriage project, a yearlong marriage and relationship education program for couples with children, report less abuse, more positive communication, and greater marital happiness than control-group counterparts.

 

With the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers at more than 40 percent, similar programs for unmarried couples with children are being evaluated. One such project called Building Strong Families found little evidence of relationship quality improvement among participants, but Cowan and colleagues indicate that more analyses are needed to understand these findings. Research on the challenges that unmarried families face can be found in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families. Also see our issue The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies.

 

Hispanic Children in Poverty Exceed Whites

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According to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, "More Latino children are living in poverty--6.1 million in 2010--than children of any other racial or ethnic group. This marks the first time in U.S. history that the single largest group of poor children is not white. In 2010, 37.3% of poor children were Latino, 30.5% were white and 26.6% were black."

 

Prior to 2007, more white children lived in poverty than Hispanic children. But the Great Recession hit the Hispanic population particularly hard. Poverty rates between 2007 and 2010 increased by 36.3% for Hispanic children. Comparable rates during this time period for whites and blacks increased by 17.6% and 11.7%, respectively.

 

Of the 6.1 million Latino children living in poverty, more than two-thirds (4.1 million) are the children of immigrant parents. And, as noted in the Future of Children's Immigrant Children volume and policy brief, a substantial percentage of these children are falling behind in school.  More than 5 million, for example, struggle with their academic subjects because they are still learning English.

 

Evidence shows that three policy reforms -increased attendance in quality preschool, improved instruction in English, and increased attendance in postsecondary education -would improve the school achievement of Hispanic youth, lift their economic wellbeing as adults, and increase their economic and social contributions to American society.

 

Latin American immigrants arrive in the United States with a strong work ethic and strong family values. By the second generation, their work rates decline, their wage progress appears to slow, and both their nonmarital birth rates and their divorce rates rise. Finding ways to boost achievement and help more Latinos complete high school and attend and complete college or other postsecondary training should be high on the nation's list of priorities.

 

As Pew Center Associate Director Mark Hugo Lopez commented in the New York Times "Who [Hispanic children] become will be important for the future of the nation."

 

For more specific information about the Future of Children's recommendations for children of immigrant families, see our Immigrant Children volume.

Creating a Better World

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What does it take to create a better future for our children?

With the passing of Sargent Shriver yesterday, January 18th, we remember a leader with an inspiring vision for a better world, who strove to create opportunities where they did not exist.

A man who "came to embody the idea of public service," as President Obama described him, Shriver was the first director of the Peace Corps during President Kennedy's administration, turning the modest project into a respectable powerhouse of international volunteerism. Under President Johnson's administration, Shriver created the Office of Economic Opportunity and is known as the 'architect' of the Johnson administration's War on Poverty. He founded, among others, Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, the Special Olympics, Legal Services, the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services (now the Shriver Center), Indian and Migrant Opportunities, and Neighborhood Health Services.

In thinking about the topics that The Future of Children seeks to address, it is difficult to imagine one that Sargent Shriver did not touch. Our volumes on The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies and Opportunity in America, in particular, build on Sargent's work.

His family remembers him as "a man of giant love, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment.  He lived to make the world a more joyful, faithful, and compassionate place."

Sargent Shriver's values and life's work provide an example for other visionaries who strive to create a more humane world for our children.

As Woodrow Wilson said, "you are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world." Clearly, Sargent Shriver did.

King's Dream Deferred for Children of Unmarried Parents

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Last week, news at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School mentioned work by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities, which suggests that Martin Luther King's dream is deferred for millions of children. The reason? A significant increase over the past 40 years in the percentage of children born into fragile families, defined as couples who are unmarried when their children are born. Almost three-fourths of African American children and just over half of Hispanic children are born to unmarried parents, and whites are quickly catching up -- so much so that the proportion of white children born to unmarried parents today (29%) is actually higher than it was for blacks in the mid-1960's when Daniel Moynihan released his report on the black family that voiced concern about this issue.

Research shows that children growing up in fragile families face greater risks to their well-being and future opportunities than children growing up in more traditional families. Simply put, family formation and the associated resources or lack thereof, are creating a new divide among children.

"The evidence suggests that parents' marital status at the time of their child's birth is a good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children's wellbeing," said Sara McLanahan, one of the most authoritative voices on this subject and one of the principal investigators of a seminal study focused on these families. "But as the number of children born to unmarried parents has increased, so has their exposure to poverty and family instability."

According to the groundbreaking Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study:

  • Unmarried parents are much more disadvantaged than married parents. Unmarried parents are more likely to have started parenting in their teens; are more likely to be poor; are more likely to suffer from depression; and are disproportionately African American or Hispanic. One particular finding is especially jarring - nearly 40% of fathers who have children outside of marriage have been incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, and this number is likely an undercount.
  • A large proportion of unmarried parents are in "marriage-like" relationships at the time of their child's birth. One-half of unmarried parents are living together at the time of their child's birth, and another 32% are in 'visiting unions,' defined as romantically involved but living apart. This is contrary to the image we have of the "single mother," giving birth outside of marriage alone with no father by her side.
  • Relationships are unstable. Despite their clearly stated high hopes that they will marry eventually, most unmarried parents do not stay together. The result is that many children experience high levels of instability and complexity. Only 35% of unmarried couples are still living together five years after the birth of their child; given the young age of these parents, those who do not stay together go on to re-partner, exposing their children to increasing numbers of short-term parent figures and half-siblings.
  • Children are doing poorly. Children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents; single mothers and mothers in unstable partnerships engage in harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities with their children than stably married mothers.

"What this suggests," says McLanahan, "is that we must start to think very seriously about policy reforms that will reverse this trend. If these cohabiting couples were long-term, stable relationships as they are in Scandinavian countries, for example, we would not be concerned. But in the United States they are fragile, and children are suffering as a consequence."

As Dr. King said, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned." While the country has made critical gains in this area, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that these gains are not lost on our children.

A fact sheet of the findings can be found at:

http:/www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/documents/FragileFamiliesandChildWellbeingStudyFactSheet.pdf

Additional findings are highlighted in The Future of Childen's volume on Fragile Families.

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study has been following approximately 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, including a large oversample of children born to unmarried parents. The Study is a joint effort on Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Center for Health and Wellbeing and Columbia University's Columbia Population Research Center and The National Center for Children and Families.  The Study is funded through grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies.

Who Needs Marriage? Children Do

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As reported in Time Magazine's November 18th cover story, according to a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey, a growing number of Americans believe that "marriage, whatever its social, spiritual, or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be."

The claim raises the question, "not necessary for whom?"

The Future of Children's Fragile Families study, referenced in Time's feature, Who Needs Marriage?, suggests that for some, and particularly for children, marriage is more necessary than ever.

And despite the more general findings that Americans believe that marriage is unnecessary for a host of issues, when it comes to raising kids, more than three-quarters say it's best done married.

As The Future of Children: Fragile Families journal explains, fragile families - defined as couples who are unmarried when their children are born - face greater risks than more traditional families, which can have negative consequences on child wellbeing. Simply put, stable, two parent homes have greater monetary and emotional resources to support their children's development. And in the United States, marriage has the greatest chance of achieving relationship stability which leads to stability for children.

So where do we go from here?

The Future of Children Fragile Families journal shows that, contrary to popular belief, most unwed parents have close and loving relationships at the time of their child's birth. However, at five years after birth only 35 percent of unwed parents are still together. These first moments in a child's life present a unique opportunity to work with couples to strengthen unwed parents' relationship and parenting skills.

At the Brookings Institution Fragile Families launch on October 27, 2010, a young man summarized the impact of such program participation on his views about children and marriage.

"When we went to this class, and I listened to the statistics about the married couples and the unmarried couples and how much it would benefit my child for us to be married, I took advantage of that. I want my child to be raised to be a man, and I love my girlfriend. It was a no-brainer, but it really took learning about my child's future to help me put it together."

While a growing number of Americans may view marriage as a dying institution, its benefits for children are clear. As our nation's poverty rate continues to climb, preventing and strengthening fragile families will become increasingly important.

For more information on fragile families and our policy recommendations to support them, please go to The Future of Children's full volume on Fragile Families.

In Monday's front page article of The New York Times, Patricia Cohen cites The Future of Children: Fragile Families journal as an example of the resurgence and recent acceptance of research around culture and poverty.

Fragile families, defined as couples who are unmarried when their children are born, face greater economic and stability risks, which can endanger child wellbeing. The Future of Children volume, based on the nine year longitudinal fragile families study and other research explores the increase in the number of fragile families over the past fifty years and the ramifications of this reality, and recommends policies to ensure child wellbeing.

A key finding of the fragile family study is that contrary to popular perception, most unmarried parents are together at the time of their child's birth. However, just a few years later many have broken up and are no longer co-parenting in a healthy manner. Policy makers and practitioners who focus on these parents later in the child's life may have missed a "magic moment" - the child's birth - at which parents can be given services to shore up their relationship and learn critical co-parenting and relationship skills.

Based on this central finding, five steps to strengthen fragile families are recommended:

  1. Support the three T's: Treat early, Treat often, and Treat together. In other words, treat couples when they are together at the time of their child's birth, provide lots of services at that time, and treat as the family that they are.
  2. Decrease the number of nonmarital births by "going to scale" with sexual education programs and resources. Most parents in the fragile families study had their first child as teens so preventing that first young birth would go a long way to reducing the number of children exposed to the break-up of their parents and the instability created when their parents date in search of new partners.
  3. Increase union stability and father involvement in fragile families by building on and perhaps modifying marriage-education programs that have shown to be successful with middle class families.
  4. Redesign tax and transfer programs so that children not only have access to high-quality services, but that benefits are not cut or reduced if parents marry or live together.
  5. Develop and rigorously evaluate new demonstrations in the areas of how postsecondary education and penal policy affect the lives of fragile families.

For a summary of the volume, full journal, and complementary policy brief, please go to: http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/journals/.

New Census Measure Provides More Detailed View of Poverty

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The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced plans to publish a new poverty measure in conjunction with the traditional measure, a move that can shed additional light on vulnerable populations and how current policies are serving them. While the new measure will not replace the current one in policies and determining program eligibility and funding, it will reveal a more nuanced view of the experience of lower-income Americans.
 
The standard measure, first published in 1964 as part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, calculates a federal poverty threshold based on food expenditures as determined by the “thrifty food plan” developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The measure is quite simple; it presumes that food expenditures should make up a third a household’s budget, so it simply multiplies the amount allowed under the thrifty food plan by three. Families are considered poor if their household income falls below this level. While the threshold has been continually adjusted to account for inflation, it does not account for regional differences. Even more problematic is that over the past half-century food prices have dropped relative to expenses such as housing; given that housing costs have soared since the 1960’s, the current measure does not accurately capture the financial strain of some families.
 
The new measure is based on different calculations of necessary spending and family resources. Household spending includes the costs of food, housing, utilities, and clothing, as well as a little bit extra. Family resources include not only income, but also in-kind benefits such as food stamps. The resource measure also subtracts taxes and tax credits, work expenses such as commuting costs and childcare, and out-of-pocket medical expenses to represent the family’s actual ability to cover the expenses listed above. This more accurate and thorough measure acknowledges the complexity of resources and spending, and it allows for geographic adjustment such as  greater costs in places with more expensive housing.
 
Scheduled to be released annually starting in fall 2011, this new measure will help policy evaluation in three major ways. First, it will help  determine  if all vulnerable  populations are being reached. Second, by including additional measures of needs and resources, researchers and policy makers can better analyze whether assistance programs are mitigating families’ experiences of poverty, such as the difference food stamps make to a family. Third, the measure will show how much necessary expenses add to a family’s burden. By extending beyond food costs to include housing, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and utilities, policy makers can identify areas where the poor need the most help to fulfill their families’ needs.
 
As explored in an issue of The Future of Children that focuses on antipoverty policies, these types of governmental assistance for child care, health care, and education are critical for needy families. The Census’s new poverty measure allows a new insight into these issues and interventions and can provide a powerful new tool for analysis in the coming years.
 
 
For more details, see the federal government’s working group report from March 2010: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/povmeas/SPM_TWGObservations.pdf

Evidence linking alcohol and other drug abuse with child maltreatment, particularly neglect, is strong. But does substance abuse cause maltreatment? In a recent article in The Future of Children volume Preventing Child Maltreatment, authors Mark Testa and Brenda Smith found that co-occurring risk factors such as parental depression, social isolation, homelessness, or domestic violence may be more directly responsible than substance abuse itself for maltreatment. Interventions to prevent substance abuse–related maltreatment, say the authors, must attend to the underlying direct causes of both.

Research on whether prevention programs reduce drug abuse or help parents control substance use and improve their parenting has had mixed results, at best. The evidence raises questions generally about the effectiveness of substance abuse services in preventing child maltreatment. Such services, for example, raise only marginally the rates at which parents are reunified with children who have been placed in foster care. The primary reason for the mixed findings is that almost all the parents face not only substance abuse problems but the co-occurring issues as well. To prevent recurring maltreatment and promote reunification, programs must ensure client progress in all problem areas.
 
At some point in the intervention process, attention must turn to the child’s permanency needs and well-being. The best evidence to date suggests that substance-abusing parents pose no greater risk to their children than do parents of other children taken into child protective custody. It may be sensible to set a six-month timetable for parents to engage in treatment and allow twelve to eighteen months for them to show sufficient progress in all identified problem areas. After that, permanency plans should be expedited to place the child with a relative caregiver or in an adoptive home.
 
Investing in parental recovery from substance abuse and dependence should not substitute for a comprehensive approach that addresses the multiple social and economic risks to child well-being beyond the harms associated with parental substance abuse.
 
Drawn from “Prevention and Drug Treatment,” by Mark Testa and Brenda Smith.
 

New California Law Undermines Critical Employment Supports

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In the thirteen years since welfare reform was enacted, many people have moved off welfare and into jobs. Some have exited poverty altogether. Many remain on welfare, however, or have used up their time on welfare but continue to face significant challenges to steady employment. This population is disproportionally made up of single mothers, often dealing with obstacles to work such as low levels of education, substance abuse, mental illness, and poor health. States offer, to varying degrees, supports such as child care, transportation, and job training -- assistance that is critical to these women’s employment prospects.
 
The current recession has forced states to reduce expenditures, so work support programs are vulnerable to being cut. For example, cash-strapped California has offered women on welfare with young children the option of foregoing work requirements in return for giving up child care and other work supports. Interestingly, few women have accepted this offer thus far, so California may even require some mothers to take the welfare check without work requirements or supplemental programs. While economically beneficial for California in the short term, this policy could counteract anti-poverty measures in the long run. California’s action also could influence other states, furthering a policy that works against providing single mothers critical support as they make their way off cash assistance and into work.
 
As an article in The Future of Children’s Anti-Poverty issue explains, child care assistance helps families stay in jobs and have more disposable income. Although low-income families purchase less expensive care than higher-income families, child care comprises a larger portion of their expenditures. Since child care is necessary for working parents, so also are the subsidies to low-income working mothers, who would otherwise not be able to afford to have someone watch their children. In addition, employment assistance is necessary for mothers facing barriers to work such as mental and physical health problems or substance abuse.
 
One benefit of welfare-to-work programs has been an increase in mothers’ take-home earnings, which can improve family circumstances in many ways.  Work coupled with child care subsidies, transportation assistance, Medicaid, and other such programs offers low-income mothers an opportunity to meet their families’ basic needs. 
 

For mothers encountering multiple barriers to work, leaving them able to work only in a limited capacity if at all, cash assistance and work supports are critical. Unfortunately, California’s short term need to cut support programs could hurt vulnerable women just starting to make their way into some level of self-sufficiency. 

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