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Families facing poverty should not be hostages of a debt limit accord

Originally published on The Boston Globe.

The article “No debt limit deal; but both sides signal optimism” (Page A1, May 17) reported on the countdown taking place in Washington as Republican leaders threaten to take resources for food and other basic needs from millions of Americans in exchange for an increase to the US debt ceiling. These restrictions pose a threat to the short- and long-term health and well-being of families with low incomes.

As a pediatrician serving families on the brink of poverty for more than 45 years, I have seen firsthand the critical impact that nutrition and financial support have on the brains and bodies of my young patients. When Congress passed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families sanctions nearly three decades ago, my national colleagues and I worried about the health consequences for America’s children. So we launched Children’s HealthWatch, headquartered at Boston Medical Center, to document the impact.

Our research on the front lines of health care in six cities across the United States demonstrated that terminating or reducing cash assistance benefits is associated with poor child health, maternal depression, increased child hospitalizations, and food insecurity. We and other researchers have shown the downstream impact of this misguided approach. Food insecurity in families with young children costs our nation more than $160 billion per year in avoidable health costs. TANF sanctions increase child maltreatment reports and the need for costly foster care.

With a sense of déjà vu, I am deeply alarmed by the current efforts that would again place an estimated 1 million children nationally at risk as a result of losing benefits because of unrealistic work requirements for TANF.

For the sake of our children, Congress and the Biden administration must unequivocally oppose work requirements and arbitrary time limits, which jeopardize the health of families and children across the nation.

Dr. Deborah A. Frank


The writer is the founder and principal investigator emeritus of Children’s HealthWatch and the founder of the Grow Clinic at Boston Medical Center.