DC’s War on Child Poverty

Recently, I spent a few days with data do-gooders from across the country at the KIDS COUNT network data conference. It was amazing to be with so many child advocates discussing how to strengthen our collective work as a network. At a plenary session on the “War on Poverty,” I was shocked to discover how little has changed since the start of the national “War on Poverty” 50 years ago.

In DC, there are approximately 100,000 children under 18 years of age. More than 36,000 children under age five are growing up in DC neighborhoods – playing on city playgrounds, attending child care centers and learning in Pre-K classes. The number of young children in DC has increased by 11% since 2000, which is especially notable because the total number of children (under age 18) has decreased by 8% over the same time period.

With a rising birth rate and expanding overall city population, we expect the number of young children to continue to increase in future years. Of these tens of thousands of young children, 1 in 3 live in poverty. Poverty here is pervasive, but for many of us, it is nearly invisible.

Too often, children in poverty and their families are disproportionately concentrated in distressed neighborhoods, where a lack of key neighborhood assets and an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality have contributed to the persistence of child poverty.

DC spends more on education than almost any other jurisdiction. Education in DC is under intense national scrutiny on various education reform efforts to improve outcomes for children, yet even with all the spending and reform efforts, the bottom line: outcomes for children in education, health and family economic prosperity are NOT improving as quickly or as much as DC children deserve.

The solutions to child poverty are not straightforward, because lifting up children means lifting up and empowering their families. That is why “children’s policies” need to go beyond the education and health that directly targets children. Eliminating poverty among young children can seem like a daunting task, but it is an essential one for DC’s future economic prosperity. If we can invest in the success and well-being of young children in poverty, those effects will continue throughout their lives and effect the next generation as well.

Too often, policy changes to benefit children take the form of quick fixes and minor tweaks. Policymakers and advocates tinker around the edges, tackling the problems that seem most easily solvable. No matter how good our intentions are as we try to provide children in DC with quick fix solutions, it is clearly NOT enough. Nor is it fruitful to continue to think these small investments will somehow solve the systemic challenges our children face. These small-scale strategies have led to a situation where the nation’s capital – one of the most affluent, educated and wealthy cities in the country – has such high child poverty rates.

Eliminating poverty among young children can seem like a daunting task, but it is an essential one for our future. It also requires a long-term perspective.

There is no silver bullet to end child poverty or equip children in poverty to overcome barriers and reach their full potential. It will require a comprehensive approach and strategic long-term investments.

After the announcement this week of DC’s proposed FY15 Budget, I was thrilled to see investments in important evidenced-based programs to support young children, including home visiting and additional supports targeted at infants and toddlers. There is a clear need for comprehensive solutions, but will this be enough to create substantial change for children and families struggling with poverty.

My question as we go into this budget cycle: Is DC ready for the commitment it would take to create transformative long-term change that pull children out of poverty?

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