Our children are in trouble if we don’t pass Biden’s child allowance

Originally published on The Hill.

Many of the pandemic’s effects are widely known — the lives lost, the businesses that have shut their doors, the families that are going hungry, the women who are being forced out of the job market, and the disproportionate impacts of all of this on lower-income families and communities of color.

But beneath all of this is a lesser reported — but critically important — impact, and that’s the toll that the pandemic and its economic fallout are having on children and their health. Since the start of the pandemic, food insecurity and housing instability among families with children has skyrocketed.

As pediatricians, we treat babies who are so far off the growth curve they meet the World Health Organization’s definition of malnutrition, not because their bodies can’t grow but because they can’t afford even basic calories. During this economic crisis, this reality is exacerbated among our patients and families as they struggle to pay rent, put food on the table, and keep the heat and lights on. Yes, we listen over a child’s chest to heart sounds, what we hear most loudly in our exam rooms is the heartache of parents struggling to meet the material, emotional, and schooling needs of their children. We know from our research at Children’s HealthWatch headquartered at Boston Medical Center and from the research of others that when children live in families that are unable to afford basic needs, they are placed at greater risk of being in poor health, being hospitalized, missing age-appropriate developmental milestones, and experiencing mental and behavioral health issues.

We can prescribe medicines when our patients get sick and administer vaccines to prevent infectious diseases, but often the things our patients need most to keep them healthy are not stocked in the pharmacies at our hospitals; families need safe, stable housing, nutritious foods, reliable heat and utilities, and other basic needs in order to be healthy today and in the future. For too many families, the ability to afford these basic, health-promoting needs are out of reach especially during this economic crisis.

The unfortunate truth is that even before the pandemic, childhood poverty and hunger in the U.S. was stubbornly high. And in the last year, the situation’s only gotten worse, particularly for Black and Brown children. In September, more than one-in-five children were living in poverty. While government spending in April and May buffered some of the worst impacts on families and children early on, the numbers of children living in poverty — particularly in Black and Brown families — rose sharply as the stimulus checks and unemployment benefits dried up. Evidence-based solutions that reduce poverty and promote health are critically needed and Congress has an opportunity to advance these policies in the next relief package.

President Biden’s proposal to expand the Child Tax Credit to issue a monthly child allowance to families with children, including those with no income, would be a game-changer for reducing child poverty in our country, and we urge Congress to pass the policy immediately.

Direct payments are like an economic vaccine during this crisis. They inoculate children from the lifelong consequences of poverty. We also know that because families with low incomes immediately spend tax credits and stimulus payments in their local economies, these payments protect entire communities — particularly communities of color that have faced chronic disinvestment — from further economic fallout.

But the child allowance wouldn’t start right away. In the near-term, we must also continue to send direct payments through stimulus checks, which are proven to reduce childhood poverty during the pandemic, until the economy recovers. Stimulus checks can be implemented incredibly fast, and they also help ensure that relief is at the scale of the crisis — each round of checks provides as much aid to families with children as a year of the child allowance. For the length of the pandemic, both are needed.

Ensuring direct cash assistance until the economy recovers and establishing a permanent child allowance will respond to the realities that many families face and promote racial health equity. Our research at Children’s HealthWatch has documented how families with young children — particularly families of color and immigrant families — were not only severely impacted by the Great Recession, but continued to face alarmingly high rates of food insecurity for years following the official end of the recession. The economic recovery that some experienced was excruciatingly slow or never happened for many of these families.

President Biden’s child allowance proposal would be a game-changer for children in America, and should be combined with recurring checks to make sure that we’re getting help to families now and in the long-term so that no child has to live in poverty, and that all children have the opportunity to reach their highest potential.

By Diana Cutts, MD, the Chief of Pediatrics at Hennepin County Medical Center and Megan Sandel, MD, MPH, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. Drs. Cutts and Sandel are Co-Lead Principal Investigators at Children’s HealthWatch headquartered at Boston Medical Center, a nonpartisan network of pediatricians, public health researchers, and children’s health and policy experts.