Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy (ICYFP) convenes leading poverty experts at the Boston Fed

December 10, 2019

Dolores Acevedo-Garcia
ICYFP Director, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia

By Nomi Sofer '91

In the U.S., 13.6% of all children—more than 9.6 million children—live in poverty. Poverty rates are much higher for racial/ethnic minority children: more than one in five Hispanic children and one in six black children lives in poverty. Last month, ICYFP’s Dolores Acevedo-Garcia and Pam Joshi brought together leading academic researchers and experts to discuss how policy design and research can address these wide racial and ethnic disparities in child poverty. 

The day, co-sponsored with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, built on the findings of the "Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty," a consensus report released in February 2019 that outlines a path to cutting child poverty in half within 10 years. Children who live in poverty suffer in the short and long term, and child poverty costs the nation between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion each year. Reducing child poverty is possible, and given the changing demographics of the U.S. child population, ensuring that racial/ethnic minority children are included in these efforts is critical.

Poor families often experience fluctuating income, as adults cobble together multiple part-time, low-wage jobs and families have no assets to rely on when emergencies occur or income levels drop. These fluctuations—known as income instability—impact child school attendance and performance and disproportionately affect black and Hispanic students. Lisa Gennetian of Duke University highlighted the need for a new policy focus on income instability, which is increasingly understood as an important dimension of child poverty. The Heller School’s Thomas Shapiro illustrated the racial wealth gap that puts black children at a disadvantage from birth. CUNY’s Naomi Zewde discussed the power of programs like Baby Bonds—publicly funded children’s savings accounts established at birth—to address the racial wealth gap and reduce income instability.

Tom Shapiro and others sitting on a panel
Thomas Shapiro (third from left) at one of the day's panels.

Administrative burdens—the practical barriers and emotional costs of applying for benefits from social programs—can be high, effectively excluding eligible children from programs intended to protect poor families and reduce child poverty. Georgetown University’s Pamela Herd outlined the psychological costs of dealing with “the bureaucracy of poverty, of having to prove over and over again to those in charge how fundamentally unworthy you are,” and reminded the audience that administrative burdens are a policy choice that disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic families. Policy and technology solutions that can reduce administrative burden exist, but ensuring that their equitable application remains a challenge.

Insight Center President Anne Price spoke of the need to change racialized narratives around poverty that shape the implementation of policies like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and child support. Later in the day, Zach Parolin of Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy provided a striking illustration of these impacts from his research into the huge state variation in the percent of TANF that is spent on cash assistance. States with the largest black populations spend the least on cash assistance and spend more of these funds on efforts to influence family formation and police recipients’ behavior. Parolin estimates that if racial bias were neutralized, billions of additional TANF dollars would go directly to provide cash assistance to needy families, potentially lifting a quarter of a million black children out of poverty each year.  

Efforts to reduce poverty among Hispanic children are heavily influenced by immigration policy and program eligibility rules that limit immigrants’ access. Children of immigrants are 25% of the U.S. child population. The majority of them are U.S. citizens and thus eligible for anti-poverty programs. However, eligibility restrictions affect immigrant parents, which, in turn, hurts their children. The poverty rate for children of immigrants is more than twice the rate for children whose parents are U.S.-born—20.9% vs. 9.9%—differences that are partly due to policy choices that severely restrict immigrant eligibility for social benefits, even for legal immigrants.

Mark Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, outlined the poverty-reducing effects of easing those restrictions, noting that eliminating immigrant eligibility restrictions for safety-net programs like SNAP and Medicaid would have an especially large impact on Hispanic children. “How we treat children of immigrants in social policy is not a specialty topic; it is at the core of U.S. social policy,” said ICYFP Director Dolores Acevedo-Garcia in closing remarks.

Learn more about the “Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty” report, and view a recording of the event.