Comment: U.S. can provide for poorest kids; when it wants to

During economic crises — like covid — financial and child care aid drove poverty down. Then the pandemic ended.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

America has proven that we can take care of our most vulnerable children, our families, our future.

But only when we want to.

Wartime? Economic crisis? Global pandemic? We’re on it.

“Children all too frequently go without sufficient and proper nourishment while rent, gas and shoe bills are paid,” wrote Lucy H. Gillett, in the November 1936 edition of the Journal of Home Economics, just as the nation established a federal school lunch program to combat hunger and malnutrition in children during the Great Depression.

When Rosie Riveters left their homes to manufacture weapons during World War II, the federal government created a fantastic network of free and high-quality child-care centers. When mom picked the kids up after work, she even got a foil-wrapped, hot dinner to eat at home.

As the global covid-19 pandemic shut down jobs, schools and child-care centers, legislators created the American Rescue Plan, a lifeline that kept families from plunging into eviction, joblessness and hunger and helped stabilize child care centers.

“We learned, at that time, if we want to solve child poverty, we help provide resources to families,” said Rachael Deane, who heads Voices for Virginia’s Children, a nonprofit sounding the alarm over the steep cliff the state’s children and families are about to fall off as federal funding programs end.

All told, our policy responses cut child poverty in half.

But as soon as each crisis that spawns good policy was over — after Wall Street recovered, after Japan surrendered, after the coronavirus was subdued — the funding was abruptly cut. And families, children in particular, suffer.

The figures on child poverty released this week should be a gut-punch to every American.

A year ago, the rate was the lowest we’ve ever seen; just 5.2 percent. We were in Scandinavian territory, y’all, at the cost of about 100 F-35 jets annually.

For the roughly $12 billion a year it cost to expand the reach of the child tax credit, we ensured stability for millions of Americans into stability.

So what did we do?

We killed the program, pushing millions of kids back into poverty and more than doubling the rate to 12.4 percent.

The consequences of our pandemic support ending were swift and enduring, for children and for those who care for them.

Parents are especially struggling to find affordable child care, as the places that provide it, once bolstered by pandemic aid, struggle to survive.

The challenge is even more pronounced for shift workers, single parents, student parents and families of color, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which found the cost of care for a single child averaged $10,600 a year in 2021.

When covid threatened the already janky network of child-care centers available to parents, the nation finally stepped into action and expanded benefits to child-care centers. It worked.

In fact, some of these centers not only survived; they thrived for the first time.

“We are doing our best to serve our communities, and ours here is a fairly low-income area,” said Juanterria Browne-Pope, who owns and runs Kidz with Goals, a 40-child day-care center in Hopewell, Va.

A mother of three who had a hard time finding affordable day care that worked with a nurses’ schedule, she opened the center with two other nurses as a solution to their child-care quandary.

The margins in her business were razor thin and Browne-Pope had to keep pulling night shifts as a hospital nurse to keep her center open, ending that job at 7:15 a.m. just in time to start her second job caring for kids.

But the pandemic, it turned out, was good for her business, thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan.

“Eleven months,” she said. “For 11 months I didn’t have to work two jobs.”

She was able to quit her night job and pay herself a living salary at her center. She bought new playground equipment and a handicap-accessible van. She gave her workers small raises and even offered a scholarship to families hit hardest by the pandemic.

That’s all ending in two weeks, when that federal funding ends as insurance rates for her center rise. Her penalty for staying in business taking care of kids? She took out a personal loan to prepare for the cliff her business is facing.

It’s a cascade effect when a single, proven program ends because politicians argue against it. Let’s look at what that means in numbers, according to a report by The Century Foundation.

In Virginia alone:

• 88,265 children will lose their care;

• 1,383 child-care programs will end;

• 2,861 child-care workers will lose their jobs; and

• Virginia families will lose $280 million in earnings because they have to cut hours or quit jobs without child-care

All for what?

On Wednesday, a group of Democrats introduced the Child Care Stabilization Act of 2023, a bill calling for $16 billion in funding to firm up the nation’s collapsing child-care system.

“The lack of affordable child care in America is holding our families, workers, and economy back,” one of the bill’s backers, Sen. Tim Kaine,D-Va., said in a statement.

So far, none of the Republicans; not even the ones branding themselves as “pro-baby,” have supported the bill.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team. Follow her on X @petulad.

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