Fighting Child Poverty

Terry_Brooks_KYAThis post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Courier Journal. You can view it online here

The Sept. 8 Time magazine cover tag line read, “The Answers Issue: Everything You Need to Know,” and the contents delivered. In fact, it devoted 51 pages to answering questions that ranged from “When did yawning begin?” to “How many people are required to authorize a U.S. nuclear attack?” Time answered those and dozens of other questions with certitude.

I wish the answer was that simple when it came to tackling child poverty in Kentucky.

A recent spate of national reports reminds us that Kentucky’s kids stand in stark contrast to their counterparts nationally. While there are signs at the national level that child poverty is finally beginning to decline, Kentucky continues to experience higher child poverty rates than the nation: one in every four Kentucky children lives in poverty.

This is the imperative issue if we are to improve the overall well-being of the commonwealth’s youngest citizens. We cannot adequately address any other issue — be that health outcomes, safety or educational achievement — without addressing economic security for our children.

Given the political times in which we live, there are big ideas that won’t happen in the current climate in Frankfort. We must, instead, craft an agenda that will have support in the Senate, in the House and with whoever sits in the governor’s office. The good news is that those kinds of solutions abound. Unlike the editors of Time, Kentucky Youth Advocates does not have “the” answer, but tantalizing first step solutions exist. And, yes, I am a big believer that early wins can spur momentum to larger scale change.

No better example exists of a waiting opportunity than a refundable state earned income tax credit, or EITC.

We know that at the federal level, this support for low-income families that are working but still struggling to make ends meet is the single most effective anti-poverty tool yet employed. I love the fact that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama championed the EITC. Families win with a state EITC, because it lets them keep hard-earned dollars; local economies win, because that is where families spend EITC dollars; and the state budget wins, because this is one tax break that yields a documented return on investment. The very first act of the 2016 General Assembly and the new governor should be to pass a refundable state EITC.

Options for early wins don’t stop with the EITC.

A cursory overview of the good work of respected national groups like the Brookings Institution and Corporation for Enterprise Development reveals that there are dozens of policy moves that other states have enacted that are producing real results when it comes to addressing child poverty. In every case, those solutions resonate with bipartisanship and common sense.

As an example, there are so many ways in which we can better support entrepreneurial efforts from low-income moms and dads with a dream.

An analysis of Kentucky’s landscape in this area shows immediate and specific opportunities to help beginning farmers and small businesses. I am especially taken by the power that microenterprise zones have shown in impoverished areas. In those cities and states using microenterprise as an anti-poverty measure, low-income visionaries gain access to small bits of venture capital, and the results have been market-based success stories. Kentucky, then, can help low-income families create assets in a variety of ways.

Kentucky can also help low-income families keep more of the scant resources they have.

As an example, some public benefit programs in Kentucky — such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — place limits on how much families can save and still receive help. Those policies actually discourage families from saving. The commonwealth needs to join the eight states that have lifted this limit for TANF to help families save and move out of poverty. You cannot talk about the high price of being poor in Kentucky without talking about the predatory climate in which families find themselves.

 

Important community-level movements are occurring in places like Louisville and Owensboro to ensure that low-income families gain access to mainstream financial services. Those local “bank on” efforts are commendable, and we need those efforts statewide, given that over one-fourth of Kentucky’s low-income families don’t have a basic checking account. Six states and the District of Columbia have enacted state financial access programs so every Kentucky family has that opportunity. That is a proactive way to undercut unscrupulous and usurious practices like payday lending, pawnshops and add-on fees for refund anticipation loans that beset the commonwealth.

Along with addressing the challenges of poverty in the present, we need to look toward the future.

The national landscape shows that schools are racing “back to the future” and making financial literacy part of “the basics.” Kentucky’s obsession with high stakes accountability has meant lost attention to financial literacy for kids. Many schools do an exemplary job in this arena but even more schools — pressured by test scores — don’t address financial literacy. All students would benefit from learning that important information.

Perhaps the most important aspect of answering the child poverty question in Kentucky is not about policy at all.

It is about attitude.

There is far too much acceptance that poverty is just “Kentucky being Kentucky.” We need a change of heart.

“In a country well governed,” Confucius asserts, “poverty is something to be ashamed of.”

Come on, Kentucky. Let’s get ashamed of child poverty, and then let’s create a day when Kentucky is the best place in America to be young.

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