One in five American children grows up poor, vulnerable to the physical, developmental, and neurological effects of poverty. The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) now urges its physicians to add questions about family poverty to their standard children’s health assessments as a means of early detection of at-risk children. “Pediatricians deal on a daily basis with the intersection between poverty and health and the well-being of children,” says Dr. Benard Dreyer, president of the AAP. “They understand that they actually aren’t separate.”
The national employment downturn that began in 2008 has been a severe blow to many families that had been just emerging from poverty. Many jobs have returned since the end of the Great Recession, but they don’t pay well and many remain part-time. A lot of families still rely as a result on public aid to get by. But that system, “reformed” in 1996, when the much derided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was replaced with Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), may not be up to the job.
What had been direct aid from the federal government was transformed into a block grant program for states to use as they deemed best. Aid was tied to work and lifetime cutoffs were instituted. The federal allotment for such aid has remained frozen at the 1996 rate—about $16 billion—even as jobs have disappeared and the number of families in need grows across the country.
Twenty years later, poverty rates are creeping back to levels not seen since the end of the Great Society programs when the poverty rate in the United States was at a modern low of 11 percent (it had been as high as 23 percent and currently sits at about 15 percent). Critics allege the poverty resurgence suggests the failure of government intervention programs. Aid does not propel poverty, but underfunded and understaffed programs set up to fail will fail.
AFDC used to reach as many as 68 out of 100 families in need; TANF now reaches 23 out of 100. The purchasing power of our parsimonious public aid—some states offer less than $300 a month to a family of three—has similarly declined dramatically. Meanwhile, the national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two thirds—from 4.7 million families in 1996 to 1.7 million families in 2014—even as poverty has intensified. It appears while TANF is great at moving poor families off of poverty caseloads, it is far less successful at actually moving families out of poverty. Two decades in, is TANF due for reform?
The church’s teaching on human dignity insists that the authentic needs and dignity of the “client” have primacy over the prejudices of society when devising public aid proposals. And its preferential option for the poor demands that in a just society the treatment of the poor will have primacy over other public spending decisions—before corporate welfare and before military spending.
If a moral call for adequate and dignified government won’t move hearts, perhaps a practical appeal will move heads. With all that we now know about early childhood development, a truly wise society would do its best to see that all its children are raised with the minimum conditions required to help them grow into productive, happy adults—regardless of their income status at birth. Investments now in children’s nutrition and well-being will pay off for them and for all of us. The poor, working, and middle classes in America need the same basic social goods: adequate shelter, education for children, good nutrition and health care services, and child care to allow them to work—the alleged ambition of TANF and other social supports. Achieving these ambitions is well within the social capacity hidden within our $4.1 trillion federal budget. It merely has to become a preferential priority.
This article also appears in the July 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 7, page 42).