Opinion: Give low-income families the support they need to help kids succeed

Video: Jared Bernstein delivered a prepared overview at Washington Post Live’s Children and Families Summit.

What do we mean when we say we want “to help children succeed”?

The broad, general contours of the most important things we need to do are well understood. A healthy society is one in which all kids have the ability to achieve their intellectual and economic potential.

That doesn’t mean that if we get the policy right, every kid achieves her potential. Fate sometimes gets in the way. Nor does it mean that every kid makes it to the top 10 percent. Potentialities differ. But it does mean that neither your Zip code nor your parents’ wealth and education should influence the likelihood that you realize your potential.

That’s not the current state of affairs. It never has been. But it’s not asking for the moon to ask America to be the meritocracy that many people believe is the promise of America to its children.

Right now, we are drifting from that goal and we need to get back on track.

Economic inequality is at or near all-time highs. What impact does that have on the goal of children achieving their potential? While uniformly equal outcomes are not something to which we aspire, equal opportunities are. And, I believe our current levels of inequality are reducing opportunities for children who happen to be on the wrong side of the have/have-not divide.

With the growth of income inequality has come greater dispersion of child-enrichment goods. There’s a growing gap between what wealthy and low-income parents provide to enhance their kids’ learning — everything from after-school tutoring to sports, art, books. In fact, according to recent research, it’s grown from a factor of four to a factor of seven.

That underscores the need for continued income supports to the lowest-income families. The recent expansion of work-related tax credits has helped. Lower-income families also need more support at the local level for after-school enrichment programs.

Growing inequality is associated with lower rates of college completion among lower-income children. We’ve focused a lot of energy on access to higher education, but completion is just as important as access. We need more attention to the transition from two- to four-year schools, tapping online-learning options where appropriate. We must focus more on access to financial aid, student debt burdens and the stressors facing nontraditional, working students.

Research shows that children from poor families who received such income support have much better chances of landing a well-paying job. A recent randomized study — rare and reliable in our field — found that poor children were more likely to complete college if they had smaller class sizes in the early grades.

While more research needs to be done, it seems clear that reducing income inequality will help reduce the correlation between Zip codes and educational outcomes.

A first step to doing that would be to improve the job market for low-income parents. Increasing the minimum wage would help. New research by my colleague at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Arloc Sherman shows that President Obama’s proposed minimum-wage increase would help lift the earnings of 4 to 5 million low-wage parents.

In the near-term, we should focus less on federal budget deficits — a long-term challenge — and more on the jobs deficit. Right now, with unemployment so high for so long, one of the best things we could do for lower-income kids is help their parents with jobs and earnings.

We need to eliminate barriers that keep children from quality education, from preschool to grad school. That won’t be free. So, we have to stop whacking away the non-defense discretionary side of the budget, which funds key programs such as Pell grants, Head Start, the WIC nutrition program, help with low-income housing and federal supports for local public education.

And simply not cutting such investments won’t be enough. We need more revenue if we want to support the president’s excellent idea of universal preschool with support targeted at kids below 200 percent of the poverty threshold (about $47,000 for a couple with two kids).

We need to continue to support — not pull back — the safety net that pretty much kept kids’ poverty rates from rising in the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Reducing teen pregnancy is also clearly linked to reducing poverty and increasing child well-being. This is an area of social policy where we’ve made real progress. But we must not let up.

We must also avoid letting this become a debate pitting support for kids against support for the elderly.

Lots of us compare what we spend to support older Americans with what we spend on kids, and many in this debate want us to make equal commitments to both. But a quick Google search for “spending too much on elderly and not enough on kids” reveals many are pitting one segment of society against the other.

My argument is not “we must never touch Medicare or Social Security.” But such reforms must protect economically vulnerable elderly. Although their lives are mostly behind them, a civilized society ensures that they have an economically secure retirement.

And why do we use the elderly for comparison? Why don’t we compare our spending on children with our spending on defense or on saving the banks?

Finally, our highly inefficient and expensive health-care system inflates these comparisons between what we spend on kids and the elderly.

The best way to “help children succeed” isn’t to pit generations against each other, but to address the questions of inequality of opportunity and immobility.

We need robust investments that will provide our least-advantaged children with the ladders they need to climb over barriers and reach their potential.

Bernstein, an economist and senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was the chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Biden and executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class. For Jared Bernstein’s full bio, click here.

 
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