Why Clinton’s Focus on Deep Poverty Is So Important For Children

While the Trump campaign is imploding, the latest policy proposal from Hillary Clinton is not likely to get the attention it deserves. She has updated her tax plan to provide assistance to those living in extreme (deep) poverty.

Since the welfare reform of the 1990’s, it has been important to distinguish between families and children who find themselves in poverty as a result of an event, such as a job loss, divorce, illness, etc. and those who spend their lives in poverty – usually as a generational issue. Welfare reform was fairly effective with the former. But particularly since the Great Recession, the ranks of those living in deep poverty have grown.

I learned a fair amount about this issue during my time working with youth and families in an urban area. That is why I am particularly focused on how living in deep poverty affects children. Back in 2012, Paul Tough wrote an important article about that:

There are now seven million American children whose families earn below 50 percent of the poverty line. And in the last decade, we learned quite a lot about what it does to children to grow up surrounded by the kind of everyday chaos that often accompanies life in a family that is earning less than $11,000 a year. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions.

In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions. Intensive early interventions can make a big difference, but without that extra help, students from the poorest homes usually fall behind in school early on, and they rarely catch up. When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. And when these same children reach adolescence…they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.

Much of my work over 30 years was devoted to working with children and youth who had experienced deep poverty, and their behavior was captured very well by Tough.

So what is Clinton proposing to do about that? I’ll let Dylan Matthews explain:

Specifically, Clinton is calling for a change in the refundability threshold of the child tax credit. Those sound like technical changes, but it has tremendous ramifications. Currently, the poorest American families can’t claim the credit, which is a mainstay of the tax returns of most middle-class families. That’s because households that make less than $3,000 a year — the truly, desperately poor — are excluded entirely, and households making under $9,666.67 can’t get the full credit.

Clinton would change the law so that families start getting the credit with the first dollar they earn. That would effectively increase the tax refunds of the poorest families with children. In addition, Clinton would double the credit for children 4 and under, something that helps both poor and middle-class families with young kids, and she’d make the credit phase in much faster for families with kids in that age range.

I hope we’ll hear more about this proposal in the coming days. When working with these families over the years, I used to talk about those who live in the shadows. We are quick to jump on the behavior that is often exhibited by these children and eventually spend millions of dollars on their incarceration. It’s time to pull them out of the shadows and start supporting them early on. It means a lot that Clinton has put this on the table as something that we need to address.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.