Why Innovation is Key for Addressing Child Poverty in the post-COVID World

April 30, 2021

by Cameron Love, MPP’22

“Addressing Child Poverty during the Pandemic” featured Dr. Lisa Gennetian, Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at the Sanford School of Public Policy, and David Reese, president and CEO of Durham Children’s Initiative.

During the enlightening and frank conversation, the pair gave their perspectives on the challenges and successes the child poverty space has witnessed over the past year and what the future may hold.

The discussion was moderated by Dr. Leslie Babinski, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the School Research Partnership, which hosted the event.

Reese began by touching on a silver lining of the pandemic. He noted it has been “amazing” to see the Durham community rally around food access and helping families. However, he was quick to point out that the pandemic has been “devastating when we start thinking about the effects on kids and families.”

“It’s almost as if someone pulled the floor from underneath us,” said Reese.

And children have noticed, too. Reese said kids are quick to recognize when their family starts struggling, despite efforts to shield them from harsh realities.

“The kids we work with were fully aware of the changes and the shifts,” said Reese.

Gennetian’s opening comments connected what was happening in Durham with the national picture.

“The microcosm of what DCI is experiencing here in Durham is happening across the country,” said Gennetian.

She then provided pre-pandemic context, noting the optimism in the child poverty academic space prior to COVID-19. Poverty rates had been sliding for decades, with rates at historic lows. The pandemic has clearly reversed much of that progress, as child poverty rates surged during COVID-19.

Gennetian highlighted several of her key takeaways from the pandemic, including why the United States was so vulnerable to a public health crisis.

The social safety net in the U.S. hinges on work. When a public health emergency like the pandemic prevents millions from going to work, the social safety net will unravel and fail to protect children, Gennetian said. The safety net is not designed to intervene without a work component. Thus, providing emergency food supplies and other services needed due to the pandemic has been challenging.

DCI helped meet this need in the Durham community. First, the organization made the effort to collect survey data from the community, completing two surveys at the beginning of the pandemic. The main purpose? To directly ask the community members what they needed.

The first survey was conducted at the end of March, with fairly encouraging results. The survey that followed four weeks later was much less encouraging. Seven in nine respondents to the second survey needed emergency financial assistance. Nine in ten needed emergency food support.

DCI mobilized in response by bringing in food rescue organizations, collaborating with community and philanthropic partners on distribution, which included pop-up food sites for families. It wasn’t enough, though, to offer food. Reese indicated that families benefited even more from receiving store gift cards.

“Gift cards allow families to buy what wasn’t given to you at distribution site,” said Reese, like toiletries, meat, or other supplies families needed to make it through a week. It also gave more control and a sense of normalcy to families.

Gennetian was a fan of DCI’s approach. She discussed the Census Bureau’s efforts to collect quick data from Americans during the pandemic. While she was grateful for the speedy release of the data, she wishes DCI’s question had been included.

“Wouldn’t it have been amazing if (the Census Bureau) included that question — ‘What do you need?’ ” said Gennetian.

She moved on to a hot policy topic: The American Rescue Plan (ARP). The recent legislation includes support for housing, food, school re-openings, and equitable vaccine distribution. The part she may be most excited for is tied to her own work studying direct payment to families—the expansion of the child tax credit.

The expanded child tax credit gives up to $3,600 for each child under the age of six in a family and up to $3,000 for each child age 6-17. These amounts are tied to research that claims the payments will make a sizable difference for low-income families and children.

While Reese was also excited about the ARP, he pointed out that not every family in need will receive support from it.

“For some people this is a lifeline, this is a game changer,” said Reese. “Other families, we have to acknowledge, they didn’t receive the first stimulus [payment].”

“If you didn’t file taxes you are out of luck,” Reese said.

Gennetian also noted some concerns with the ARP. The main one was about the rollout of the program, noting that the IRS doesn’t have much experience in making month-to-month payments. She also emphasized that the ARP won’t make up for vast racial inequities in the U.S.

“We are reckoning with it, but are we doing something about it?” asked Gennetian. “Can we push our system to address these inequities? I worry about the same children being left behind even under this very generous plan.”

Reese said those children should be front and center in developing and executing solutions in a post-COVID-19 world.

David Reese said his organization is worried that, as families face more challenges, adolescents will feel the pull to drop out of school and enter the workforce. Instead of completely trying to push these kids toward not working, Reese said the organization and those in Durham’s philanthropic community are developing policy innovations to allow both work and school.

“We can’t have one or the other be the decision they make,” said Reese. “We want fewer and fewer to make that decision or choice.”

Gennetian is a fan of this approach, noting the high returns research finds in advancing education.

“These are all the marching steps to economic security… I think that’s exactly the right way to protect our young people, who are the future of our country,” said Gennetian.

It seems paramount, based on the insights of Gennetian and Reese, that the goal of a post-COVID world not be a return to normal. Instead, the United States and the Durham community must continue work to innovate in the child poverty space. Doing this with a racially equitable lens is key, as is centering the families and children who will be impacted by policies in their development and implementation.