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May 2, 2018

Investing in Children’s Safety Net Pays Big Dividends

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune and written by Kathy Silverberg, a former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions.

It is a long-held belief by many Americans that people are poor because they do not have the ability, inclination or incentive to keep and hold a job, thus they are unable to take care of themselves and their families.

Following this line of thinking, and assuming there are enough jobs that match the skills of the poor, public assistance programs would be needed only for those unable to work. Thus, more Americans would be self-sufficient and fewer tax dollars would go toward addressing the ravages of poverty.

Earlier this week, the president issued an executive order calling on all federal agencies to enforce work requirements already in place and to review all waivers and exemptions to these guidelines. In addition, agencies were asked to consider adding work requirements to any benefit programs that do not currently have them.

A worthy goal, if only it were that simple. For one thing, the Center for American Progress reports that most households receiving food stamps already include one working adult, and a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis indicates that 80 percent of Medicaid recipients live in families with at least one person who is employed. A job, it seems, does not assure an escape from poverty.

Likewise, requiring all able-bodied adults to work or lose benefits will not solve the problem of generational poverty.

The solutions lie in a multifaceted approach that touches children and adults with a long-term commitment to change the culture. It will not be easy or quick, but the alternative should be untenable for a civilized society.

Even if the need for an adequate safety net provided by public funds is not embraced by those who wish for smaller government, the cost-benefit should be convincing.

An article published last month in Social Work Research and written by Michael McLaughlin and Mark Rank estimates that the cost of childhood poverty in America is just over $1 trillion per year or 5.4 percent of GNP.

Writing this week in The New York Times, Rank summarized the study, explaining, “Impoverished children grow up possessing fewer skills and are thus less able to contribute to the productivity of the economy.” In addition, he pointed out that poor children are more likely to have health problems and become involved in criminal activities, both of which present a substantial financial burden to society.

The study calculated the estimated cost savings that would be realized by reducing childhood poverty and found that for every $1 spent, the country could save $7.

Estimates put Florida’s childhood poverty rate at 23 percent, almost one in four. The 2017 Kids Count Data Book, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks the state 43rd in the economic well-being of children.

One of the factors in the ranking is the number of children living in households with a high housing cost burden, meaning the family must spend more than a third of its income to put a roof over their heads. In Florida, 40 percent of those 17 and under fall into this category. The national figure is 33 percent.

The state does somewhat better on education measures, ranking 31st with significant improvement since 2010 in high school graduation rates.

And Florida was an early leader in preparing young children for school by implementing the voluntary pre-kindergarten program. It was reported Wednesday in the Herald-Tribune that 75 percent of Florida children are enrolled, putting the state behind only the District of Columbia.

But sadly, Florida has failed to maintain an acceptable level of funding for this program, dropping the allocation for 2016-17 by nearly $4 million over the previous year. Florida spends $2,282 per child on voluntary pre-kindergarten, while the national average is $5,008, according to Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research.

This region is blessed with a will to improve outcomes for children and generous foundations that have invested private dollars in this effort. The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, which encompasses Sarasota, Manatee and now Charlotte counties, has shown positive results in educational attainment. Likewise, programs like All Faiths Food Bank’s Campaign Against Summer Hunger help to keep children healthy when school is out.

But the private sector cannot do it alone.

This nation needs a commitment to making children a priority, to assure that, from birth, services are in place to give them the opportunity to grow up in a safe, healthy and enriching environment.

As the world’s leader in innovation and economic power, the United States must not ignore its most valuable asset. Money spent on this effort will pay big dividends down the road.

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