I'll admit it. I was surprised to learn that Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney had proposed giving cash every month to American families with children.
Romney, who was once compared with Thurston Howell III, the clueless elitist from "Gilligan's Island," is not exactly the first politician who springs to mind when the subject turns to lifting American children out of poverty.
In 2012, in fact, his presidential campaign foundered after he was secretly recorded denigrating the poor during a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the home of a hedge fund mogul in Boca Raton, Florida.
"My job is not to worry about those people," Romney said of those who pay no federal income tax because they don't make enough money. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
In view of the trauma the pandemic has wreaked on American families, blaming the poor and struggling for their own misfortune has simply become unacceptable. I'm glad Romney has come around to the idea that ending poverty in general, and child poverty in particular, is a worthy use of a senator's time.
But let's not give Romney too much credit just yet.
Tucked into President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a proposal similar to Romney's, but with key differences. Under the Biden plan, nearly all American families would receive monthly checks of up to $300 per child, about the same amount Romney is proposing. But whereas Romney's plan proposes to pay for itself by eliminating other forms of federal assistance to the poor — there had to be a catch, right? — the Biden plan keeps those strands of our federal social safety net in place.
"We are really excited to see so much momentum around the idea of providing cash assistance to families with children," said Cara Baldari of First Focus on Children, a bipartisan group that advocates making kids and families the priority of federal policy and budgets. "I like to stress that children are resilient and can succeed in all circumstances, but poverty puts a lot of barriers in front of them."
What, exactly, are those barriers?
To find out, two California Democratic congresswomen, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Barbara Lee, succeeded in getting an amendment attached to a House funding bill in 2015 to scientifically measure the effect of poverty on the estimated 10.5 million American children who suffer it, and to suggest evidence-based ways to reduce their numbers by half within a decade.
The National Academy of Sciences was assigned the task. It assembled experts in economics, psychology, cognitive science, public policy, education, sociology and pediatrics, and in 2019 issued a massive report, "A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty." It is full of important but depressing information:
"Poor children develop weaker language, memory and self-regulation skills than their peers. When they grow up, they have lower earnings and income, are more dependent on public assistance, have more health problems, and are more likely to commit crimes. Robust research evidence has shown that low income itself, rather than other conditions poor children face, is responsible for much of these negative impacts on children's development."
And here is the even more stunning conclusion: Child poverty is expensive. It costs the nation an estimated $800 billion to $1.1 trillion annually in terms of lost adult productivity, the increased costs of crime, and health care, according to the evidence presented by the academy.
As Congress debates these measures, let's not lose sight of the fact that the phrase "child poverty" was not on the mind of former President Donald Trump. His heartless policies made life harder for many American children, especially those of immigrant parents who were fearful of claiming benefits for their kids. Good riddance to him, and may Republicans in the Senate come to their senses and vote to convict him of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
But I digress.
After years of neglect, the moment is finally ripe to tackle one of our most intractable problems. The idea of government as an obstacle rather than a solution to our biggest national woes is, thankfully, receding. Right now, we need more government, not less. We need to raise the stagnant federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, and we need to get as much cash as possible into the wallets of American families.
While we rejoice in stories about impoverished children who've made it, who become the first in their family to graduate from college, to build careers, to reach back and lift up others, we need to understand that those success stories are the rare exceptions.
Most children who begin life in poverty face obstacles and challenges that can only be overcome by making them less poor.
Sometimes, throwing money at a problem is the only way to solve it.
Childhood poverty is one of those problems.
Robin Abcarian wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.