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Advocates Discuss the ‘Historic Decline’ in Child Poverty and Explore State Policy Levers to Support Families’ Economic Security 

At the Alliance’s 2022 annual summit, CONNECT22, state early childhood policy advocates from across the country joined a session on the recent decline in child poverty, what lies ahead, and the spectrum of policy options that states can deploy to provide cash support to families with young children. The session—titled Are the Kids Alright? Putting the ‘Historic Decline’ in Child Poverty in Context and Examining State Policy Levers to Support Families’ Economic Security—offered a chance for state advocates to learn from national policy experts and to share experiences and strategies among themselves.


First, Beth Jordan from Child Trends shared key takeaways from Child Trends’ recent report on the decline in child poverty.

  • The child poverty rate declined from about 1 in 4 children in 1993 to 1 in 10 by 2019.
  • The federal social safety net played an important role in that decline, especially the EITC, Social Security, and SNAP.
  • The experience of poverty is hard to measure. Researchers used the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) rather the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) because it has more current information on expenditures and includes the value of benefit programs to families. Different measures are needed to capture families’ experiences and understand the many aspects of economic insecurity.
  • Disparities among groups of children did not improve during this time, because families of color and immigrant families are still facing racism and systemic barriers to employment and accessing the safety net. Poverty declined at about the same rate for everyone, which means the disparities that were present in 1993 are still present today. Disparities even increased for some populations, including children in immigrant families, Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children, Hispanic children, and children in families without stable employment.

Ashley Burnside from CLASP picked up the story at the start of the pandemic and shared the effectiveness of federal relief efforts in maintaining declines in child poverty, particularly the child tax credit.

  • The pandemic impacted the poor and people of color disproportionately, reinforcing inequities and structural racism in our education and health care systems.
  • However, thanks to government responses, child poverty continued to decline in 2020 and 2021, showing that the safety net can be effective in supporting families
  • The child tax credit expansion in 2021, including an increase in the amount of the credit, making it fully refundable, and implementing monthly distribution, had a big role in the unprecedented decline of child poverty. According to the Census Bureau, in 2021, a million children under age six and 1.9 million ages 6-17 were lifted out of poverty due to the child tax credit expansions.
    • Full refundability especially benefited Black and Latino children, and disproportionately benefit families with the lowest incomes.
    • Research found that implementation mattered—most parents received the credit without having to file any additional information to the IRS, and the monthly distribution model was important. A CLASP survey found that parents were spending the credit on essentials like bills and food, improving the well-being of children.
    • Some families missed out on the credit, such as immigrant or mixed-status families (all members of the family had to have a social security number) and families who weren’t already in the IRS system.
  • The child tax credit ended at the end of 2021, and from December 2021 to January 2022, child poverty went up from 12 percent to 17 percent, with Black and Latino families seeing the highest increase.
  • The federal pandemic aid included other important benefit programs as well, like stimulus payments, Pandemic-EBT, unemployment insurance expansions, and EITC expansions.
  • Some communities did guaranteed income pilots, which are particularly effective when targeted at those families who have a more difficult time accessing services.

A brief note on TANF. TANF has weakened over time due to restrictions on eligibility and use of the funds, and the program was not a driver of the decline in child poverty. There is a national conversation going on about whether TANF can be incrementally improved, or whether the program is so flawed that it should just be eliminated. The arguments in favor of reforming TANF rather than scrapping it are that it is targeted to those who need it most, it provides specific supports, it comes with a caseworker who can support the family, and it can be activated quickly in the case of an emergency. TANF does not, however, stand in for an expanded child tax credit to families, which has been shown to boost families out of poverty. Some researchers think that Tribal TANF in indigenous communities might be more effective than general TANF because of differences in implementation.

Deborah Zysman with the Hawai’i Children’s Action Network shared how they led an effort to increase the minimum wage and make the Hawai’i EITC permanent and refundable.

  • Last legislative session, Hawai’i increased the minimum wage to $12 per hour, and it will go to $18 per hour by 2026. The nonrefundable state EITC was supposed to sunset, and they passed legislation that made it refundable and permanent.
  • HCAN used to be entirely focused on early childhood education but recognized they couldn’t improve early outcomes without addressing poverty. They leaned in on antipoverty work a few years ago because there weren’t other organizations in that space. They started writing it into grants and telling funders that they were doing whole family, whole child work that supported economic justice and progressive tax policy. They lost some funders, but they were able to build capacity to bring on a full-time economic supports staffer.
  • They use ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) as their framework. Sixty percent of the state’s population falls in the ALICE category – poverty is high under the façade of tourism. Wages are low, and housing and other necessities are expensive.
    • A session attendee mentioned that ALICE data can create a narrative to help legislators understand the realities of a family that is just one emergency away from disaster, particularly in red states focused on “prosperity” as a value.
  • To pass these priorities, HCAN took advantage of a big election cycle. They had positive feedback at the beginning of session about the EITC but not about the minimum wage, which faced business opposition.
  • There was a moment near the end of the session where the coalition was told to pick one priority or the other or lose them both. They held the line and refused to choose, knowing that families needed both. Thanks to unrestricted dollars like from the Alliance, HCAN was able to do paid phone banking around this message. Both priorities ended up passing.

Michelle Fay of Voices for Vermont’s Children shared their recent successes to support families’ economic security.

  • Vermont passed a state child tax credit and made policy changes to the state TANF program that would make the program more accessible and useful to families.
  • The Republican governor of Vermont had plans for a tax cut, and the Democrat majority in the legislature wanted to preempt those proposals and propose a counter-policy.
  • The champions of the child tax credit came to Voices for Vermont’s Children and asked them to testify on the bill early in the legislative session – it wasn’t something they were working on at the time. Voices proposed changes to make the credit more progressive, including making the credit higher for younger children, lowering the income eligibility for families with older children, and making periodic payments instead of one lump sum. VT ended up passing a credit of $1,000 for children 5 and under with an income threshold of $125k, with a commitment to exploring periodicity in the future.
  • Voices also asked the state legislature for changes to the state TANF policies, including eliminating a policy called ratable reduction that resulted in lower cash assistance for families; increasing the size of the base grant and indexing the amount to inflation; and prioritizing affordable housing.
  • Voices had some bipartisan support, including a key Republican champion. Messaging focused on meeting people’s basic needs and the importance of recruiting and retaining young families to the state, which resonated well.
  • Vermont effectively eliminated the TANF work requirement—by substituting a long list of activities that count for engagement to stay in compliance—and increased the earned income and child support pass-throughs.
  • Voices will continue working in the next session to increase the base grant and tie it to inflation.
  • There is also a broad revenue coalition, led by the State Priorities Partner in the state, that is trying to change the scarcity frame that pits advocacy organizations against each other.

Attendees were encouraged to access the resources on the session webpage to take the conversation back home to their teams, particularly:

Take a look at some of the other early-childhood-policy topics we were talking about at CONNECT22.

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