Land of (Missed) Opportunity: Obama's Budget and the Fight Against Child Poverty

One of the greatest threats to our nation's economic future is not found on the trading floors of Wall Street or in the debates on Capitol Hill -- it is in the poverty experienced by 14.7 million children living in America. As President Obama notes in his 2016 budget proposal, the lost potential and productivity incurred by allowing millions of America's children to grow up poor is simply unacceptable: "Not only do young people lose when they do not get a fair shot -- we all lose."

Child poverty in this country is following an alarming trend. Though the economy is recovering, child poverty rates have risen by 3 percent since 2008. One in five children lived below the federal poverty line in 2013 and almost one in 10 lived in extreme poverty, the Children's Defense Fund noted in a report released last week. For children of color, who will constitute the majority of America's youth by 2020, chances of being poor were more than twice as high as for their White peers. A second new report, from the Southern Education Foundation, highlighted the reality that the majority of students in the nation's public schools (51 percent) are low income. This is up from less than 32 percent in 1989 and 38 percent in 2000.

Poverty poses a direct threat to educational success. Poor preschoolers are less likely to recognize letters or count to 20. For the over 45 percent of poor children who lived in homes without enough food in 2013, this food insecurity was associated with lower reading and math scores, greater physical and mental health problems, and a higher incidence of emotional and behavior problems. These challenges are even more severe for youth of color, who are least likely to have access to good schools and the wraparound supports that all children need to succeed.

These early disadvantages follow children into their adult lives, reducing their chance of graduating from high school and increasing their chances of remaining poor as an adult and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. According to one study, the lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty add up to roughly half a trillion dollars a year, or 3.8 percent of our GDP. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to bear the social and economic consequences of childhood poverty. The success or failure of these children will determine the strength of the nation's workforce, and the growth and resiliency of the American economy throughout the 21st century.

Meeting the challenges of a post-recession era means building an equitable economy where everyone can participate, contribute, and prosper -- and this starts with ensuring that every child arrives at school ready to learn. Recognizing this link between early opportunity and lifelong success, President Obama's budget rightly emphasizes investments in child care, education and job training, affordable housing, food access, earned income tax credits (EITC), and other programs that will help struggling families access the resources and opportunities they need to thrive.

The evidence tells us that programs that support families and youth work, not only in the short-run, but over the life course. Studies show that children in families that receive income boosts from the EITC or similar programs have better birth outcomes, higher test scores, higher graduation rates, and higher college attendance than their similar income peers not receiving these benefits. Studies of federal nutrition programs found children who need and receive food assistance before age five were in better health as adults and more likely to complete more schooling, earn more money, and not rely on safety net programs as adults.

Through the work of the Promise Neighborhoods Institute at PolicyLink and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, PolicyLink has been able to lift up local strategies that help build opportunity for youth, such as reforming harsh school discipline policies that push young men of color out of school, or comprehensive services for vulnerable youth that link community support systems to local schools. If passed, the 2016 budget would support and expand upon these efforts.

The child poverty of today doesn't have to be the legacy of America's tomorrow. As a nation, we must take bold steps to ensure that all of the nation's children can succeed at school and in the workforce. The president's 2016 budget acknowledges the importance of inclusive growth through its focus on improving education, making college more affordable, and targeted programs to support vulnerable youth and their families. We must all rally behind these ideas. Our future depends on it.