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To thrive, American children need a stronger safety net

4 23 0

The capitalist system in the US today is ruthless, delivering exceptionally uneven outcomes to people across the education and income distribution. These disparities translate into vastly different levels of childhood resources and experiences. The result is that a child’s socioeconomic class at birth has a tremendous influence on his or her life trajectory. If our capitalist system is going to be fair to children and families – if it is going to hold out any meaningful promise of equal opportunity – then a new social contract is needed.

Government cannot promise equal outcomes to children, but it can promote equal opportunities. This is achieved through the provision of public goods and services, including safety net supports and quality educational institutions. Children should have the opportunity to rise as far as their talents and work will take them. Individual hard work will earn material comfort; with talent and some luck, it might even earn great riches. And all children should have that opportunity. At least that’s how we imagine it’s supposed to work.

But in our modern capitalist society – characterized by tremendously high rates of income inequality, regional and local disparities, and extreme cultural and institutional divides – children from different family backgrounds do not have anything close to equal opportunities.

Children born to highly educated, high-income parents are almost all being raised in high-resource, two-parent homes. They live in safe neighborhoods with well-funded schools attended by high test-scoring peers. They almost all graduate high school and enroll in college, and a majority of those in college graduate with a degree. In contrast, children born to less educated, lower-income parents are increasingly being raised in single-parent homes with fewer resources. They often live in low-income neighborhoods and attend inferior schools. They graduate high school at much lower rates, and those who do enroll in college are much more likely to enroll in non-selective schools and much less likely to earn a degree.

Our country needs a new social contract, established with the aim of closing these class gaps in opportunity and ultimately outcomes. This will require a more complete social insurance system for children, improved educational institutions and stronger families.

Social insurance system for children

The US government provides adults with various forms of social insurance. Adults who live beyond their expected working years are entitled to social security cash payments to keep them from living in poverty, as well as Medicare to ensure they have health insurance. Adults who experience a work-limiting disability are similarly entitled to disability payments and Medicare. But, glaringly, the US does not offer robust social insurance to children. Children who, through no fault of their own, happen to be born to parents with limited resources are offered only limited, conditional help, with no guarantee of adequate material wellbeing. Our social contract must include the extension of the social insurance principle to children.

Roughly one in six children in America are living in poverty today. About 15 million children are living in households that are food insecure. That means millions of children are arriving at school each day with the pangs of hunger and other associated ills of poverty. Research from a variety of disciplines makes it clear that early life deprivation of various kinds has lasting negative effects on a child’s health, educational outcomes and ultimately their ability to work and earn high wages as an adult. On both moral and economic grounds, we need to do more in this country to ameliorate childhood deprivation.

We need a much stronger support system for low-income families. Specifically, the government should maintain and expand existing programs that are working well. It should also expand the safety net to fill in existing holes. In the US, this means expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); maintaining the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (Snap) and Medicaid entitlement programs; dramatically expanding funding for housing and childcare assistance for low-income families; and offering more support for parents who are out of work.

The EITC subsidizes the annual earnings of low-income workers. It gives the most help to those with two or more children, and plays a pivotal role in reducing poverty rates among families with children.........

© The Guardian