A major policy debate regarding child development has emerged in response to the tumultuous conditions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic recession. Policymakers on both the left and right have advanced some form of relief for families with children. And the enactment of President Biden’s plan to expand the Child Tax Credit — making it fully refundable and deliverable in monthly installments — signals the national appetite for a new framing of family policy.
Of course, the Biden plan is a temporary relief measure offered to parents to ward off the effects of the economic recession. But although discussions around family stimulus have initially been raised in the context of emergency relief, the discussion has now shifted to a debate about permanent income boosts.
While the child allowance debate has been framed more in economic or social policy terms, prior research on what affects student achievement and the utility of family income assistance indicates that effects on education should be placed front-and-center in the debate. Educators have learned from research over the course of the reform movement’s history, that much of what was — and currently is — driving differences in student outcomes occurs outside the classroom. If approached properly and carefully, income boosts to disadvantaged families could become a valuable asset in the broader movement against the achievement gap.
Differences in family background are attributable to a variety of environmental factors, with poverty being one of the most discussed. Poverty has a profoundly negative impact on a child’s development. Children who are in impoverished environments are more likely to be subjected to food insecurity and exposure to violence, among other adverse experiences. Children exposed to these conditions in their youngest years suffer the most profound negative consequences on their development, and the effects can set them back for the rest of their lives.
Wide gaps in achievement among students in high- and low-income households led some to conclude that not much can be accomplished until we fix the economic conditions of the child, but policymakers should reflect on the current state of child poverty. Since the 1990s, child poverty has been on a downward slide. The greatest effect of child poverty reduction has been felt in black and Latino communities. As the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli notes, it is plausible that some of the growth we have seen in educational performance is because children are less likely to be impoverished than they used to be.
Furthermore, while the racial achievement gap has not been eliminated, it has slightly narrowed over the past few decades, most notably in the South where black-white disparities were most prominent. Policymakers can and should simultaneously focus on improving student instruction and reducing child poverty.
Market forces in tandem with certain government programs have been key to driving down child poverty. Income boosts for impoverished families in the current social safety net have particularly been helpful in reducing rates of child poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) are work-conditional credits that lift millions of households out of poverty, and have been powerful resources for combatting child poverty. Supplemental funds to low-income families assist parents by offering resources to support their family the way they see fit.
We can observe the effects of income supplements on learning in the classroom. Children of parents who receive the EITC or CTC see an uptick in student achievement. Researchers have found gains among EITC recipients both in the short and long run. Teenagers who benefitted from their families receiving the EITC experience higher graduation rates, and are more likely to enroll in college. Relatively speaking, expanding income transfers to low-income households has been one of the most cost-effective ways to boost academic performance.
However, these child allowance plans are not a silver bullet. A myriad of factors contributes to racial and income achievement gaps. For example, students in low-income communities are more likely to be zoned to poor-performing schools that need strong guidance for improvement. Education reformers must therefore maintain a focus on school quality. Moreover, one crucial issue surrounding racial and income achievement gaps is a disparity in stable, two-parent households. Single parenthood puts children at a massive disadvantage — students in such households face lower academic performance and complete fewer years of schooling.
The debate surrounding child allowances also offers a number of critiques worth considering as proposals press forward. American Enterprise Institute’s Scott Winship worries unconditional child allowances may increase the number of unemployed parents and single parenthood itself, and prefers working within the current welfare system. While supportive of monthly assistance to families with children, American Compass’s Oren Cass urges against unconditionality, because even though income transfers may lift families above the established poverty line, a lack of a work requirement may further entrench them in the nonmaterial aspects of poverty. My colleague Andy Smarick cautions against hasty and radical shifts in federal family policy, fearing unintended negative consequences and a replacement of local associations with the distant arm of the federal government.
These critiques should remain prominent in the child allowance debate. Local institutions are vital to providing resources for parents, while also building up the community at-large. Place-based organizations such as the Harlem Children’s Zone have been lauded for their efforts in helping underserved families. Expansions in school choice also give parents the opportunity to select the best learning environment for their child when they otherwise may not have had the resources to do so. Good policymaking needs to be conscientious of where local institutions work well, and continue to rely on these institutions in order to promote the best environment for child development.
Those invested in education should look at the literature on boosts to low-income households, and engage the family policy debate in order to combat inequalities. When combined with state and local institution building, these programs have the opportunity to ensure disadvantaged youths will have a better shot at prosperity in the classroom.
This piece originally appeared at RealClearPolicy
Brandon McCoy is the project manager of education policy at the Manhattan Institute.
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