We interrupt this nerve-wracking election season with all its stupefying commercials and irritating charges and countercharges for an important public service announcement.

Social safety nets work. The facts are irrefutable. 

Nationwide, child poverty dropped by 59% from 1980 to 2020. The programs that contributed to that dramatic reduction included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing assistance, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program, federal tax credits, stimulus payments and others. 

Then in 2021, hallelujah. Child poverty plummeted. 

It dropped by 46% from 9.7% to 5.2%.

Colorado’s situation mirrors that of the rest of the country, though the state figures for last year are not available yet. 

“The national information in the Supplemental Poverty Measure captures the impact of safety net programs such as the expanded Child Tax Credit for 2021, SNAP and the other resources that help raise families above the poverty line,” said Sarah Hughes, vice president for research initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Those programs “lifted 3 million children out of poverty last year,” she said. 

Suffice it to say, kids are better off when their parents can afford to feed them. But until last year, millions of children in poverty clearly were considered acceptable collateral damage in Washington’s endless political war games.  

Even with last year’s advances, child poverty still persists, and in Colorado it’s concentrated primarily in five rural counties in the southern and southeastern parts of the state. It also is high in some neighborhoods in Denver and generally remains higher among communities of color, Hughes said.

And Colorado has its own home-grown problems. The infrastructure for kids all across the state is fractured.

A key factor in enabling families to climb out of poverty is the ability of women to enter the workforce. Child care is inaccessible and unaffordable in Colorado.

“We have long waiting lists for child care, particularly for infants and toddlers,” Hughes said, “and year after year, Colorado is one of the least affordable states for child care.

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“The effect is that people are staying out of the workforce because it costs more than they are earning.”

Housing is also a huge problem. A recent study found Colorado has the sixth-highest housing costs in the country.

“That’s not news to anyone,” Hughes said. “Housing is foundational to a child’s well-being and housing costs here are astronomical. Any solutions must prioritize housing for families with kids.”

Education is yet another area in which Colorado is failing children.

Per pupil funding for K-12 education is well below the national average, which means all schools lack the resources needed to support students and those who need help the most often get the least.

“Education is a long-term poverty reduction strategy,” Hughes explained. “It’s hard to provide concrete data from year to year, but it’s undeniable that students who graduate from high school with skills are equipped to rise above the poverty line in the future.”

One area in which Colorado has shown innovative leadership is in its efforts to reduce teen birthrates through improved access to contraception

“The research shows when you give people the power to plan their families, to empower them with choices about when to have children, it creates far greater economic security for them,” she said.

Continued progress in reducing child poverty in Colorado and across the nation is far from guaranteed, however. 

“We are absolutely at risk of losing ground,” Hughes said.

The biggest factor is the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit, enacted in 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan to address the COVID crisis. An effort to extend it failed in Congress and “now we’re back to business as usual,” Hughes said.

Those 3 million children lifted out of poverty last year already may be back where they started.

Another program that provided important support for children in poverty was universal free school meals for all students. While this didn’t boost family income, it ensured that children would have access to healthy food.

It also expired this year.

The contraction of resources is occurring at the same time we’re experiencing a worldwide economic crisis that’s teetering on the brink of recession.

And, as usual, our children are being thrown under the bus.

“With the exception of the Children’s Campaign, kids generally don’t have lobbyists, so we don’t see their needs being prioritized,” Hughes said. “Congress is far more attentive to the needs of the elderly and other interests with lots of lobbyists, such as the oil and gas industry.”

Voters can have real impact in November, however.

In addition to passing the ballot measure to provide free meals for all students, Coloradans can elect representatives who make children a priority by supporting such programs as the Child Tax Credit, public funding for accessible and affordable child care, contraception and family planning resources, housing assistance, education and other measures that help parents give their children bright futures.  

“We learned from the pandemic that we know exactly how to address child poverty,” Hughes said. “The only question is whether we have the political will to do it.”

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)

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Diane Carman

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @dccarman