With so much going on these days — an increasingly likely government shutdown, Lauren Boebert’s R-rated assault on musical theater etiquette, CU football’s future turning so bright that Coach Prime has to wear/hawk his signature brand of shades — you may have missed the distressing news about the rise in childhood poverty in America.
It’s more than distressing, really. It’s disgraceful.
And it’s all in the latest report from the Census Bureau, which put the childhood poverty rate in 2022 at 12.4% — meaning, for the math challenged, one in eight kids living in poverty in the richest country in the world. (And, yes, depending on which metric you use, the U.S. is still the richest. And by any standard, rich enough.)
As bad as that is, what’s much worse is that in the year before, the childhood poverty rate was 5.2%, the lowest it has been since they started keeping records.
In other words, the rate more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. And if you’re wondering how that could happen — how as many as five million American children could slip back into poverty in one year — you’re not alone.
To get the full effect, check out these raw numbers: In 2020, 7.2 million American children lived in poverty. In 2021, the number dropped to 3.8 million. And in 2022, it climbed to nearly 9 million.
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It wasn’t mere chance that doomed the kids to a return to poverty. The failure to protect them was intentional. It was done with full knowledge of the alarming consequences — that the new childhood poverty numbers would be, as Sen. Cory Booker so aptly described them, a “moral obscenity.”
The question is whether that obscenity will be enough to move our politicians to take action.
If you’ll remember, when Congress passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in 2021, it sent extra money directly to families with children living in poverty. And the poverty numbers fell dramatically, which is hardly surprising. The policy relied on a page from an old playbook, which says that having more money in your pocket, or maybe your bank account, is a proven way to avoid being poor.
The plan provided payments of $250 per month for children ages 6 through 17 and $300 per month for those under 6, with an income limit that phased out wealthier families. It improved on an earlier iteration of the tax credit, which was not as generous and which, more critically, did not go to families that did not pay enough federal income tax to cover the credit. In other words, the poorest among us got little to nothing.
But when Congress failed to renew the law — which, unfortunately, had been scheduled to sunset after a single year — you can see what happened. And what should never have happened.
As Joe Biden put it, it was “no accident — it is the result of a deliberate policy choice.”
As Sen. Michael Bennet has put it in a series of interviews he’s given since the poverty data was released, “The idea that the richest country in the world wouldn’t want to end childhood poverty for its own sake defies my imagination. I do not understand it.”
Actually, Bennet does understand it. He understands the oft-repeated slander that, with extra money, poor people will simply rush out to buy, say, big-screen TVs or the latest iPhone. He knows the people who say that have never been poor. Bennet points to study after study, and his own experience as Denver schools superintendent, showing what actual people do — buying food, clothes or paying the rent come to mind; so does fixing a broken car or paying for childcare — when the check comes in.
People who think an extra $300 a month disincentivizes work, Bennet said, don’t understand the tax people pay — in stress, in hardship, in an inability to provide for your kids — for being poor. It’s the poor who work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
And what Bennet understands most of all is that Congress still must act. He’s hoping that the Census Bureau numbers will nudge a few consciences. And in that effort, he and others who have been long at work on this problem are taking up the gauntlet again.
Because back in 2021, the Democrats needed every vote to pass the bill — with absolutely no help from Republicans — and Joe Manchin, the lone Democratic holdout, was able to insist on a one-year sunset for the enhanced child credit. It was widely assumed that the law would become so popular that it would be renewed. Certainly Bennet thought so.
When it came time to renew the bill, Manchin balked, as did every single Republican senator, including those who have backed similar plans in principle. They balked when Biden tried to put it in his Build Back Better plan. They balked when Biden tried to put it in his Inflation Reduction Act. Whatever not-so-descriptive, Washington-sounding name the Democrats put on whichever bill, the enhanced child tax credit — which had worked just way it was meant to — didn’t make the cut.
The law was expensive — as much as $120 billion a year — but it was a huge middle-class tax cut as well as a successful poverty program, reaching as many as 90% of American families. It also, not incidentally, cut child hunger by 25%.
The plan worked. It worked dramatically. It worked consequentially. It worked so that America’s child poverty rates were suddenly in line with other industrial countries.
It worked against the proven costs of growing up poor — kids more likely to drop out of school, more likely to graduate to a low-paying job, more likely to engage in crime, more likely to have health issues when older, more likely to prolong the cycle of poverty.
Living in poverty as a child, after all, is the most reliable predictor of living in poverty as an adult.
And there’s more at stake than morality here. According to a study by the Urban Institute, costs associated with childhood poverty are estimated to be $500 billion a year. Bennet is prepared to cut back on the program as first passed, so long as the kids who need the program most are being served. His original proposal had a cutoff of $200,000 for families. I bet he would agree to a number far lower.
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And so when Bennet says he can’t understand why the law could have been rejected, this is what he means:
“We made a choice when we turned our backs on American kids,” Bennet told me. “And it’s even worse than I ever imagined. We saw that it worked and we still turned our backs. We should end childhood poverty. Shouldn’t that be the goal of the richest country in the world?”
We should admit here that the increase in child poverty was not due only to Congress’ refusal to act on the enhanced child tax credit. There was also inflation, which made a lot of people poorer, and also the end of many COVID-directed federal and state programs.
But according to a study by the Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social policy, if the tax credit had remained in place, the child poverty level would be at 8% today, meaning 3 million fewer children would be poor.
So, now what?
Bennet has a plan to threaten to oppose some expiring, end-of-year tax cuts for large corporations — you’ve seen the lobbyist feeding frenzy — if he can’t get backing for a renewed child tax credit in return.
Would that work? I don’t know. What we do know, from seeing the results of the enhanced tax credit policy, is what can work when it comes to child poverty.
After all, the future of every kid, and not just Coach Prime’s Buffs, should be bright enough for shades.
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