When Every Dollar Counts: Child Poverty Has Lasting Negative Effects, But Even Small Income Boosts Can Help

A large and growing body of research finds that family economic stability — or the lack thereof — can have lasting impacts on a child’s ability to succeed in school and in later life. The challenges poor parents face in creating a positive environment for their children — poor food access, unstable and unhealthy housing, and exposure to violence — have adverse impacts on the physical and cognitive development of children, including impacts on brain development. Low-income children enter school well behind other children and perform more poorly in school. They complete fewer years of education, work less, and earn less than others.

The daily stresses of poverty also make it hard for parents to make sound and forward-looking decisions; one study likened living in poverty to trying to function each day after missing a night of sleep.

On the other hand, research also shows that increasing a family’s income, even by a small amount, improves a range of outcomes for poor children, including academic test scores, school attendance, high school graduation, college enrollment, and future employment.

The scientific confirmation of the importance of stable family incomes has numerous implications for public policy in the District, particularly for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare-to-work program. On one hand, the plan to raise DC’s very low TANF benefits over the next three years — from $441 a month for a family of three to $644 — will help parents find more secure housing and meet their children’s other needs. On the other hand, a TANF time limit that is set to go into effect in October 2016 could leave thousands of families with no income, and in deeper stress, unless it is modified. Some 6,000 families — with 13,000 children — will reach the time limit next year, and it is likely that many will not be able to replace the lost income. Changes to DC’s TANF time limit are needed to ensure that families receive adequate support while they are engaged in work preparation activities and when work is not available. A rigid time limit ignores the fact that TANF serves an extremely diverse group of families — and that the path to self-support will take longer for some than for others. Time limits undercut TANF’s ability to support family stability — and increase the likelihood that children will be exposed to high levels of stress that reduce their chances of success in school and in employment when they reach adulthood.

Read the full report here.

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