To Battle Poverty and Income Inequality, Invest in Children

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 2:54 PM by

Early investments in children can help overcome the effects of poverty and income inequality that reduce opportunity for many Americans. But too many parents, particularly low-income ones, are forced to choose between their jobs and making the kinds of investments in children that can last a lifetime.

Workplace flexibility and access to paid leave are basic workplace benefits that help keep parents in the workforce while allowing them to be responsive to the needs of their families. But as this op-ed piece in the New York Times points out, few low-income workers have access to those basic workplace benefits. The lack of these benefits undercuts economic mobility, making it harder for the children of today’s low-income workers to achieve their full potential.

Only 15% of the lowest-paid workers have access to paid time off in case of illness, or to care for a sick family member, compared to nearly 8 out of 10 of the highest paid workers. And only about one-tenth of the lowest-paid workers have access to paid parental leave, compared to two-thirds of the highest-paid workers.

Lowest-Paid Workers Have Little Flexibility in the Workplace                     

The lack of workplace flexibility and benefits puts low-income workers in a bind. Balancing work and family life is a struggle for many working parents, but the lack of paid time off means that the lowest-paid workers may not be able to provide care for a sick child or newborn without jeopardizing his or her job. Children of these workers are short-changed as a result, and the groundwork is laid for the children to follow their parents into low-income work.

It’s not a substitute for investments made by parents, but public investments in children can also help lift them and their families up out of poverty. Safety-net programs like tax credits for working families and SNAP (formerly food stamps) have had a “powerful effect on children’s long-term success, in school and beyond,” according to the Center on Policy in Budget Priorities. The War on Poverty has improved children’s lives for the better, but it’s not enough, according to “Improving the Odds for America’s Children,” a new book that includes a chapter by CBPP strategists.

A three-pronged approach would be the most effective in lifting more children out of poverty, according to the book. We need to:

  • Focus on moving low-income adults and youth into steady jobs – and creating the funding stream necessary to make that happen.
  • Reinforce measures that enhance or stretch the earnings of low-income workers, like tax credits and housing vouchers.
  • Create pathways for workers to move into higher-earning jobs, by raising the wage floor and providing more funding for job training and child care assistance.

Improving workplace flexibility and paid leave will allow more parents to make the kinds of investments in their children that will pay off in the long run. We can strengthen those investments by supporting families in their efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Combined, these approaches can help children reach their full potential.

Tamarine Cornelius

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