Should the U.S. Be Doing More to Prevent Child Poverty?

Last July, the U.S. government passed an expanded child tax credit program that provided direct payments of up to $300 a month to more than 90 percent of American families.

When those payments stopped in December, child poverty increased.

Do you think the government should give people direct payments of this kind to keep them out of poverty? Why or why not?

Should a person’s age make a difference in whether or not they are eligible for financial assistance? Consult the above chart showing how many older and younger Americans receive government benefits that lift them out of poverty. What do you notice? What do you wonder?

In her guest essay for the Opinion section — “We Pay to Keep the Old Out of Poverty. Why Won’t We Do the Same for the Young?” — Bryce Covert argues that the United States should provide a safety net for children similar to the one that exists for older adults. Ms. Covert writes:

The United States has an incredibly high child poverty rate.

Nearly one in seven children lives in a poor family. By comparison, fewer than 10 percent of adults are poor, and under 9 percent of those age 65 and over are. Child poverty also doesn’t fall evenly across demographics: 71 percent of poor children are Black, Hispanic or Native American.

But child poverty is not a problem without a solution. Americans may roll their eyes at being constantly compared unfavorably with Western European countries, but in this case we aren’t just bested by the usual suspects. The United States is a pretty extreme outlier. Out of 40 countries, America ranks 38th, behind not just Finland, Denmark, Germany and France but also Slovenia, Estonia, Russia and Mexico.

There’s a very simple reason for this: We don’t give parents enough money to raise their children. Or at least we didn’t until last year’s expanded child tax credit payments that proved we could if we wanted to.

Some have blamed single women choosing to have children out of wedlock and “the decay of the American family” for poverty, in the words of the former representative Michele Bachmann. But the shapes and sizes of our families can’t explain our high child poverty rate. “Across countries, child poverty rates are pretty similar in terms of the poverty that’s there before the government does anything,” Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia, told me. Even with the comparatively paltry wages low-income Americans earn, the country still has similar poverty levels to others just based on income alone, before the government offers families benefits.

Ms. Covert then describes how the United States has addressed poverty among the elderly:

By contrast, we’ve spent significant resources over the past half-century on alleviating elderly poverty. Social Security is the greatest anti-poverty program we have in the United States. It kept 26.5 million people out of poverty in 2020, most of them seniors. Unemployment insurance, the safety net program that clocks in next, lifted 5.5 million people above the poverty line. We rarely talk about it this way, but Social Security is a form of direct cash payment to all Americans once they hit a certain age.

“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. Hoynes said. When it comes to how much we spend on the elderly, “we look pretty similar to other countries.” The United States simply spends less on a permanent safety net for children.

Students, read the entire guest essay, then tell us:

Do you think the United States should be doing more to reduce child poverty? If so, which of the programs that Ms. Covert outlines seems like the best idea to you? If not, where do you think the responsibility to reduce poverty falls, other than with the federal government?

Ms. Covert writes that the U.S. government is willing to spend money to prevent poverty among the elderly, but is “much stingier” when it comes to children. Why do you think that is?

Do you think the United States should provide direct payments to families to help them raise their children? What are some benefits of these “child allowance” policies? Can you think of any downsides? With both in mind, do you think that the expanded child tax credit should have continued past December?

Why do you think the child poverty rate in the United States is “a pretty extreme outlier” compared to that of many other countries? Do you think it should consider some of the social programs offered by other countries, such as universal health care or child care, or early childhood education?

Ms. Covert raises counterarguments suggesting poverty persists because Americans are “unwilling to work” or because single women have children. How does Ms. Covert push back against these counterarguments? Did you find her reasoning, or any of the counterarguments, compelling?

What do you think are some of the long-term consequences of child poverty, which disproportionately affects children who are Black, Hispanic and Native American?

What is one statistic that stuck out to you from this piece? Why did it resonate with you?

Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.