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OP-ED: Allowing poor children to go hungry would cost society more than Biden’s child tax credit expansion

Dahleen Glanton
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Dahleen Glanton: Allowing poor children to go hungry would cost society more than Biden’s child tax credit expansion. (Dreamstime/TNS)

For some, President Joe Biden’s plan to deposit up to $300 per child into the bank accounts of millions of low-income American families each month might seem like another senseless Democratic spending spree.

On the surface, it could appear excessive. Most people don’t personally know anyone who can’t afford to put food on the table for their children. Everyone in their circle of relatives and friends has similar lifestyles. None of them has any idea what it’s like to go hungry.

Americans don’t spend a lot of time talking about poverty these days, and when we do, we normally think of adults who are out of work or earn too little to make ends meet. But impoverished grown-ups don’t live in isolation. Their children reside there, too, and often suffer much more than the adults.

One in seven children lives in poverty. That’s 11 million kids. The child poverty rate is 1½ times higher than that for adults.

It sounds like a figure we commonly hear regarding undeveloped countries. But we’re talking about children right here in America. The United States has one of the highest poverty rates among the world’s wealthiest nations.

Impoverished kids are the hidden shame of a nation that poorer countries hold up as the land of riches and endless opportunities.

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What hypocrisy. What a shame. The time to fix this disgraceful inequity is long overdue.

Life changing: Starting next month, the Internal Revenue Service will deposit checks directly into the bank accounts of families who need it most. On the 15th of every month from July to December, qualified families will receive $300 for every child under the age of 6 and $250 per child 6 and older.

That means an impoverished family with a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old could receive $550 every month for the rest of the year. Think how that could change their lives.

It’s part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package Democrats passed in March without a single Republican vote. Under Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the existing $2,000-per-child tax credit was increased to $3,600 for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 17. The savings will be doled out in monthly increments.

The new tax credit will benefit single parents earning up to $75,000 a year and couples who earn up to $150,000. But it will also help scores of families who live in poverty, including tens of millions of low-income families who did not earn enough to receive the full tax credit previously. That’s what the GOP dislikes most about it.

Though the plan is expected to lift 5 million children out of poverty this year, conservatives don’t like spending money to improve the lives of poor Americans. They have consistently refused to adequately fund child nutrition programs, while making it harder for families to qualify for food stamps and other assistance.

The GOP hates the idea of giving money to parents who are collecting unemployment benefits. They insist that it will discourage them from even looking for a job. That wrongly implies that poor people don’t mind being poor. It suggests that their hearts don’t break hearing their babies cry themselves to sleep at night because they’re hungry. It ignores the fact that most people would do better if they could. Often, they can’t, for reasons out of their control.

Going hungry: Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, an alarming number of children went hungry in America. In 2019, nearly 1 in 6 children under the age of 6 were poor, and almost half of them lived in extreme poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

Since the pandemic, an additional 8 million Americans, including 2.5 million children, have fallen into poverty since May 2020, an analysis by the Center on Poverty & Social Policy at Columbia University found.

These children go to bed hungry every night and spend the entire day hungry. Schools offered a reprieve for many of them by providing free breakfast and lunch. But with schools shuttered most of last year due to the pandemic, the children were likely to fall through the cracks.

Living in a food insecure home doesn’t just mean kids skip meals or don’t get enough to eat. Often, the food low-income families have access to is unhealthy, loaded with sugar and fat, and provides no nutritional value. But it’s cheap and accessible.

It isn’t just the inhumanity of allowing children to go hungry that we should think about; there are societal consequences as well. We all eventually pay the price for our government’s failure to ensure that all our children are well fed and healthy.

Extreme poverty can affect the development of a child’s body and mind to the point that it alters the fundamental structure of their brain. These children are more likely to have problems that extend into adulthood, including chronic illnesses and a shortened life span.

Impoverished children tend to fall behind other children at a young age, some as early as infancy. Because families cannot afford to address the developmental gaps, impoverished children often go through life with deprived learning and social-emotional development. They can lag in reading, experience underdeveloped social skills and fare poorly in school, in general. They are more likely to eventually drop out.

Research also shows that growing up in neighborhoods with excessive poverty leads to more social and behavioral problems. Not only are the children more exposed to environmental toxins such as lead, they also are more exposed to crime, violence and general negativity at an early age.

Poverty is the underlying issue in many of the social ills Americans abhor. Some argue, however, that more government involvement isn’t the answer to solving these problems. But it is ridiculous to think that the most vulnerable populations can do it by themselves.

America was founded on the principle that everyone can do well here if they work hard enough. Increasingly, that belief has become hatefully judgmental, leading many to embrace the stereotype that poor people are poor because they are lazy.

The misconception is not based on fact or reason. It is simply what some choose to believe because it’s easier than acknowledging the truth. It makes people feel good about how much they personally have accomplished, especially if they also came from meager beginnings.

That attitude has done nothing to improve the situation, though. Nearly 1 in 5 children of color in America remain poor. They are 2.5 times more likely to be poor than white children. But white children are not exempt. One in 12 white children live in poverty too.

Biden’s domestic policy initiatives are bolder than any we’ve seen in recent times. We aren’t used to our government stepping up and taking the lead in making the lives of everyday people in this country better. But that’s what our elected officials are supposed to do.

An extra $300 a month for half a year isn’t going to end all the poverty in the United States. But for at least a while, millions of children will go to bed with a full belly. That should help the rest of us sleep better too.

— Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.