Guest post by Angela Rachidi, Research Fellow in Poverty Studies
Angela Rachidi is a research fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she studies poverty and the effects of federal safety net programs on low-income people in America. She is an expert in support programs for low-income families, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She also studies the effects of tax policy and other benefit programs on low-income American families, particularly on their work and poverty levels.
Angela will join us on November 15 for The Neighborhood Effect, where we will examine the relationship between poverty, housing and education. Angela and the rest of the panel will discuss the link between poverty and housing and how this, in turn, relates to educational opportunities. They will also discuss what choices, steps or policies can or should be taken to change the current situation.
Beyond School: How the Federal Safety Net and Neighborhood Effects Contribute to Better Child Outcomes
The achievement gap between low- and higher-income children has persisted for years, possibly even getting worse in recent decades. Perhaps this is unsurprising since research shows that poverty and related stress hampers early childhood development, affecting their lifelong ability to learn and thrive.
Public policy can play an important role in counteracting these effects, but it must get the incentives right. Government programs, neighborhoods, and families all play an important role and must be combined with effective education policies so that all children have the opportunity they deserve.
Two major federal safety net programs have shown to have particular benefits for children, while others fall short. By encouraging work, the earned income tax credit (EITC) helps families help themselves. It provides a wage subsidy to low-income working families, and provides approximately $66 billion to 28 million low-income families each year. Research shows that the EITC leads to improved math scores for children, as well as increased graduation rates and the likelihood of completing some college.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has also demonstrated positive benefits for children. SNAP is the country’s main food assistance program for low-income families, and research shows that it improves a variety of child outcomes, starting before they are even born.
Even though these programs are effective, other safety net programs are not. According to a recent study, almost two-thirds of poor families with children work less than full-time, full-year and public policy fails to address the reasons they give for not working. Taking care of family or being ill or disabled are the two main reasons they give, suggesting that increased child care assistance and reforms to disability-assistance programs are needed to more effectively support them in work.
Neighborhoods and communities also play a critical role in shaping children. Yet, too little attention is given to how neighborhood structure might be harming them. A team of researchers led by Dr. Raj Chetty studied families who were given an opportunity to move from high-poverty areas to low-poverty areas through a housing voucher program. They found that children from families who moved to low-poverty areas when the child was under 13 had higher earnings, attended college more, and lived in better neighborhoods as adults compared to children from families who did not move. This suggests that decreasing the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods can help children succeed.
In a separate study, the same authors examined economic mobility and found that neighborhood also played a large role. Children living in areas with greater family stability, better quality primary schools, less segregation, and less income inequality had greater mobility than their counterparts not living in these conditions. Public policies aimed at fostering these neighborhood characteristics could also be beneficial for children.
A great deal of intense, yet important debate is being had over the role of education in ensuring opportunity for low-income children. But policymakers should not ignore factors outside of education policy that can help children. Federal safety net programs that encourage work (EITC and childcare assistance) and provide resources into poor households should be pursued. As should efforts to improve the neighborhoods in which they live. These efforts combined with effective education policies can go a long way in helping low-income children.