Research suggests cuts to TANF may hurt children for a lifetime

Young children are reflections of their surroundings. What we expose them to and their overall experiences help shape the person they are and will become. All parents hope that they are able to provide their child with a healthy and positive childhood, but what about the families with young children who are facing poverty? We have known for quite a while that poverty has negative implications on young children and their success in school and life. But new research sheds more light on how poverty affects young children. It is not just whether parents are working, but how much they earn that makes a difference.  

The evidence was published in an article by respected researchers Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson and reviewed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  It concludes that poverty has significant implications for a child’s educational achievement as well as their income earnings in the future.

While there are many important safety net programs that seek to alleviate the effects of poverty on children, including free and reduced price lunch as well as Head Start and other programs that seek to close the achievement gap, this research suggests that we may not see a dramatic impact unless we address the income of parents directly and immediately.

Programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) give parents who are unemployed or underemployed extra income to meet their family's basic needs. This research shows that boosting income for a family had a significant positive impact on a child’s educational performance, regardless of the numbers of hours a parent worked.

The article suggests that these programs not only work but that "greater policy attention should be given to remediating situations involving deep and persistent poverty occurring early in childhood." The authors specifically urge policy makers to expand tax credits for working families with young children and to avoid changes to TANF that may threaten the well-being of children. The link between a boost in parents' income and an increase in a young child’s earnings as an adult is strong. The report states that for families earning below $25,000, children whose family received a $3,000 boost to family income when children were under age 6 earned 17 percent more as adults and worked more hours than families who didn’t receive the income boost.

This sheds an even brighter spotlight on the recent policy changes to the TANF program in the District. The city has not enforced the federal time limit of 60 months for TANF benefits -- until now. TANF recipients who are at the 60-month limit will not be immediately cut off, but will see reductions in benefits they are currently receiving. Knowing that the income boost provided through TANF has positively affected children in vulnerable families, it is worth taking a long, hard look at what these new time limits mean for the future of the District.

When our president talks about the future of the United States and our ability to compete globally, it is our investments in early childhood and poverty prevention that will get us there. Now isn’t the time to be short-sighted and balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable, especially when we clearly know the implications of these decisions. Yes, we will see short-term budget savings, but is it worth it considering the long-term costs?

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