August 09, 2021

A very big deal for kids

 Child poverty is expensive. According to a 2018 article in the journal Social Work Research, it costs the U.S. over $1 trillion a year, or around 5.4% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Contributing factors to that price tag are things like loss of economic productivity, costs associated with increased health care needs and contacts with the legal system, homelessness and mistreatment.

That may sound like a lot, but tons of solid research has emerged over the last several years about the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences on social/emotional/cognitive development as well as health, substance use disorder, incarceration and lowered economic outcomes.

While not every child who experiences poverty has a lot of adverse childhood experiences —and many kids not in poverty have plenty — these experiences are strongly associated with economic hardship and poverty, both in childhood and later in life.

Conversely, economic supports and a positive cash flow are protective factors from many of these negative outcomes. Poverty may not directly cause all of them, but it can make everything worse.

For that matter, our relative position within a given society, even if we’re not at the very bottom, has a lot of impact on how healthy we are and how long we’ll live.

The decades-long public health research of British epidemiologist Michael Marmot, author of “The Status Syndrome: How Social Status Affects Our Health and Longevity” and other books, has identified some basic factors at work here.

The short version is we’re social animals who need a degree of autonomy or control over our lives to thrive.

And we crave the ability to fully participate in the society in which we live. Lack of one or both increases the fight-flight-or-freeze stress response, which is adaptive for short term dangers like a tiger attack but deadly in the long term.

One experiment really opened my eyes to the long-term effects of low socioeconomic status in childhood. Nearly 200 healthy volunteers were exposed to rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. They were also surveyed about their family background and experiences and then were observed for several days.

Amazingly, those whose parents didn’t own their homes or owned it for a shorter period in childhood were more likely to get sick — and this effect was independent of the volunteers’ current age, sex, race, body mass or socioeconomic status.

It seems that these experiences engrave themselves on our bodies whether we’re aware of the impact or not.

That would be the bad news. The good news is that, thanks to a provision of the federal American Rescue Plan, child poverty is about to drop by nearly half. Right now. The only questions are how well we do at signing people up for the right help and how long the program lasts.

The American Rescue Plan expanded the federal Child Tax Credit and made it refundable for most families, to the tune of $250 per month for kids aged 6-17 and $300 for those under 6, including newborns.

In terms of impact, this could be as huge as the enactment of Social Security in 1935, Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, or the Affordable Care Act of 2010. According to Social Work Research, “it is estimated that for every dollar spent on reducing childhood poverty, the country would save at least $7 with respect to the economic costs of poverty.”

Most families won’t have to do a thing to qualify for the credit, provided the adults file tax returns with the IRS. Fully 35.2 million American families received the first installment on July 15. It’s also estimated that 346,000 West Virginia children, 93% of all children in the state, qualify for the credit.

However, those who are in greatest danger of missing out are those who need it most. It’s been estimated that as many as four million American families might be eligible for the credit but didn’t file income taxes due to low earnings. It’s hard to know the exact numbers of such families in West Virginia, which has more than its share of low-income families, but we’re clearly talking about thousands of kids and tens of millions of dollars.

The IRS created an online portal for non-tax filers and they’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible, but it does require basic information, including things like an email address and Social Security numbers.

Some families, especially those without broadband, may need help in applying.

Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan offers a potential solution. The state of West Virginia will receive a total of $1.35 billion in federal aid, while city and county governments will receive around $677 million to address the impacts of the pandemic, including economic hardships. If even a small fraction of that funding could support outreach, including paying navigators to help sign people up, it could make a huge difference.

In addition, community groups, places of worship and public agencies such as libraries could all play a role in improving the lives of West Virginia’s children by helping to get the word out. Probably the biggest opportunity to reach those who are missing out will come as kids go back to school.

Mahatma Gandhi famously called poverty “the worst form of violence.” We should make the most of this chance to dramatically reduce its toll. And fight like hell to make that permanent.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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