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What Poor Children Need

Project Syndicate

October 17, 2023

When it comes to helping poor children in America grow up to enjoy successful adult lives, progressives and conservatives each have half the truth on their side. There is strong evidence to support both broad public spending programs and policies designed to encourage personal responsibility and stable households.

What is the best way to help lower-income children climb the economic ladder? Progressives want to spend more public dollars on health care, education, employment programs, and tax credits for poor families, whereas conservatives stress the need for more personal responsibility, stable households with married parents, and work incentives in social spending programs.

There is growing evidence that both sides are right.

A new book-length report published by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Reducing Intergenerational Poverty (we are among the authors), offers a rigorous analysis of policies that have been shown to help poor children improve their adult outcomes. In addition, a new book by economist Melissa Kearney, The Two-Parent Privilege, provides strong evidence that growing up with two married parents generates important and lasting advantages for kids throughout their lives.

To be sure, child poverty has declined substantially over the past three decades, despite a sizeable increase last year. Yet one-third of poor kids (especially poor Black and Native American children) still end up being poor adults, a rate that is much higher than among non-poor children.

As the NAS volume documents, low-income children suffer from poor health and low-quality education, and are at higher risk of committing a crime and being incarcerated, all of which limits their ability to become productive, well-paid adults. Moreover, Black children face additional barriers from discrimination and racism, and are statistically more likely to engage in harmful behaviors – such as committing crimes or maintaining weak attachments to the labor force as they age – that tend to reinforce their disadvantages.

We know that having just one parent deprives a child of the parental money, time, and energy needed to help them succeed, and that boys are more hurt than girls by their father’s absence. Yet fewer and fewer children are growing up with two married parents in the home. Notably, these outcomes and trends differ dramatically by class. As Kearney shows, nearly 90% of children born to college-educated parents grow up in a two-parent home, whereas ever-decreasing numbers of children whose parents lack college degrees can say the same.

What can be done to help low-income kids? The NAS volume is loaded with direct evidence that investments in lower-income families, as well as their schools and neighborhoods, can improve their life chances. Increasing funding for K-12 schools in poor neighborhoods, and supporting greater teacher diversity, have been shown to improve kids’ outcomes, as do programs to ensure continuous access to medical care and nutrition. Similarly, better financial aid and support services can do much to help poor college students, as does high-quality occupational training.

More can also be done on the parental side of the equation. The best way to improve work incentives and earnings among low-income households is to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a subsidy that has been shown to increase employment and self-sufficiency while improving children’s educational outcomes. Some extra assistance to non-working parents might help their kids over time as well.

To reduce youth crime and detention in poor neighborhoods, we should invest more in community institutions and effective prevention programs like Becoming a Man. It would help to put more cops on the streets, and to expand community policing; but we should also discourage the practice of locking up teens for first-time minor infractions, as this permanently hurts their life chances.

With the US federal government already on an unsustainable fiscal trajectory, new spending to increase upward social mobility ideally would not be financed with more debt. Instead, current spending on upper-income households (both from entitlement programs and through the tax code) should be redirected. Such a rebalancing would better align the budget with the fight against intergenerational poverty, which conservatives and progressives alike regard as an important national priority.

Conservatives can rightly insist that federal and state governments do more to stress the benefits of married, two-parent families for kids. Absentee fatherhood is not a mere lifestyle choice; it hurts kids, and the damage lasts for decades. But what can be done on this front? We need to invest more in efforts to improve the quality of relationships among young couples and their parenting. Though we know little about what works, we can support more experimentation. Community fatherhood programs for unmarried and noncustodial dads also might help.  

Importantly, elected leaders and commentators should not be afraid to say that having two married parents helps kids succeed. Messages matter. Those of us with influence on public debates need to do more to re-establish the social norm that marriage matters to children’s outcomes.

When it comes to helping poor children, let us acknowledge that progressives and conservatives each have half the truth on their side. Low-income kids deserve the best-possible shot at escaping poverty when they reach adulthood. That requires acknowledging that two halves make a whole.