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The child poverty rate in the United States can be cut in half over 10 years with a few simple steps. That's according to a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It would take more than $90 billion a year to do so, but the group warns doing nothing to reduce child poverty will cost the country a whole lot more. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Teachers at the Bright Beginnings early childhood learning center in Washington, D.C., play with children who are barely old enough to stand up.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD CARE PROVIDER: Yay.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).
FESSLER: Most of these toddlers are homeless. And like millions of children living in poverty, they'll likely face many obstacles trying to get on their own two feet in the years ahead.
VONNIE MCLOYD: Including mental health problems, decreased educational attainment, increased rates of delinquency and less success in the labor market.
FESSLER: That's Vonnie McLoyd, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. She's one of 15 poverty experts who spent two years looking at how to reduce child poverty, which they estimate affects about 10 million children. McLoyd says growing up poor has serious negative effects on the lives of most of these children.
MCLOYD: Especially when poverty occurs in early childhood or persists throughout a large portion of childhood.
FESSLER: But, she says, it also hurts the nation as a whole. The report finds that child poverty costs the country as much as $1 trillion a year. That's due to lost productivity when poor children grow up and to increased costs related to bad health and crime. The report notes that poverty affects some groups of children far more than others. Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is with Brandeis University.
DOLORES ACEVEDO-GARCIA: More than 1 in 5 Hispanic children lived in poverty, and that rate was nearly three times the rate of non-Hispanic white children.
FESSLER: And, she points out, Hispanic children are becoming an ever-larger share of the population. To address the problem, the panel came up with two plans that it says would cut child poverty in half. They say Congress could expand existing programs, including child care and earned income tax credits for working poor families, housing vouchers and SNAP, or food stamp benefits. An alternative proposal calls for raising the minimum wage, giving all families a child allowance of $2,700 a year and allowing immigrant families to get more government help.
The changes would be expensive - as much as $109 billion a year - but the panel emphasized that this is a fraction of what the country now pays. The question is whether Congress, which commissioned the study, will accept any of these proposals. The trend in recent years has been to cut or limit government aid for the poor.
MARLA DEAN: I'm hopeful, but I'm also concerned (laughter).
FESSLER: Marla Dean, who runs the Bright Beginnings program, knows it will be difficult to get a divided Congress to agree on how to help the poor. She hopes the new report, which is nonpartisan, will be the beginning of a more serious debate over the best way to solve a serious national problem.
DEAN: How do we set aside all those other things and look the research in the face and just say, yep, this is what it is and then move forward together to address it?
FESSLER: If nothing else, she says, it shows that cutting child poverty in half is possible. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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