Social Safety Nets Stemmed Worst of Great Recession but Kids Remain in Need

Nearly six years after the Great Recession, social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid have blunted the economy’s impact on children and families. But according to a recent report, a “slow and uneven” economic recovery means many low-income children are still in need.

A report released Tuesday by First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan advocacy group, highlighted four areas where the recession impacted children: health, food security, housing stability and maltreatment.

As of 2013, 14.7 million children lived in poverty compared to 12.8 million children before the recession, according to the report. But government programs kept pace: “the hunger safety net ‘stretched’ to help about twice as many individuals.”

This stretch was due in part to mandatory programs like Medicaid, which Congress funds automatically, said Ed Walz, communications director for First Focus. Other programs, such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and school lunches, grew thanks to the economic stimulus package.

However, there is concern that these same programs may be overstretched today if new funding doesn’t come through. CHIP funding, for example, will expire this year.

“It has to do with whether there’s political will there,” Walz said.

Walz said every issue facing kids today must be addressed together—no single issue takes precedence.

“The federal government has to attend to every part of a child’s life,” he said. “Our answer is actually all of the above.”

The report focused on government programs that have addressed children’s needs. Often, these programs require cooperation between federal and state government, with funding from both.

While Illinois’ funding for health and human services, whose programs form the state’s social safety net, has increased by 13 percent each year for the past four years, these state programs are low-quality, according to a report on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s transition by the Illinois Association of School Administrators, an educator advocacy group.

The transition report also found that a lack of coordination and preparedness among state agencies has meant less federal funding for Illinois. The state applied for a $100 million federal grant for finding new approaches to healthcare, but received only $3 million due to “poor preparation.”

Moreover, red tape has made it increasingly difficult for qualifying families to get government assistance, especially in Illinois, where different agencies’ social safety net services often overlap.

“Recipients of services must go to different offices to meet with caseworkers for each individual program, and information must be reentered with each agency,” according to the transition report.

“We started seeing those needs not get met and so it does depend on state governments as well as the federal government,” Walz said. “So for voters it’s important to know that the folks they send to Springfield…will make decisions that affect their children as well.”

Going forward, the transition report recommended that Rauner should improve Medicaid and “create a one-stop shop” for social services.

Still, the First Focus report had plenty of good things to say about these same programs.

Today, just seven percent of children are uninsured, and state and federal government “made big strides in increasing children’s access to health care,” according to the report.

Whether or not a child is covered can determine the overall quality of their health care: uninsured children are less likely to get preventive care and may have a harder time getting mental health care, according to the report.

The recession also exacerbated food insecurity, which occurs when a person doesn’t have the resources to get food that meets their dietary needs. As a result, participation in the federal food stamp program (SNAP) rose to 40.3 million in 2010, from 26.3 million in 2007.

Previous studies have shown that SNAP works, with a “direct impact on child well-being.” Nearly half of its participants are children.

Additionally, more than 2.3 million kids lost their home in the foreclosure crisis and as many as 6 million kids may be at risk today. Not surprisingly, the number of students who are homeless is also on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

However, government housing programs have proven less successful than its food assistance programs, with 15 percent of federal public housing units not meeting the standards for “decent, safe housing,” and the government’s real spending on children’s housing dropping by more than six percent in the last four years.

At the same time, the report found that these programs can reduce the number of families in homeless shelters or without a home, the number of overcrowded households and how many times a family moves.

Similarly, the report found that child welfare programs have grown weaker since the recession, with a slower spending rate and major child welfare programs, such as TANF, that have less reach.

Despite an overall increase in federal TANF funding, which accounts for 22 percent of federal spending on child welfare, the program “remains a fragile strand of the social safety net,” according to the report. In 1996, TANF funds could help 68 percent of families in poverty; in 2010, it could help just 27 percent of families.

Similar to programs for food, health and housing assistance, First Focus stressed the importance of reinforcing child welfare programs before the next recession.

“All those programs need to be protected at the levels that they currently are,” said Cara Baldari, senior policy director for family economics at First Focus.

While the consequences of child maltreatment are clear, national and independent studies are less certain of its pervasiveness. The report called for a more unified approach for collecting data on and studying child maltreatment in order to better inform policy decisions.

The federal government may need better coordination for children’s policies as a whole. Walz said one of the greatest needs today is for a federal children’s budget.

“We as a country could do better…if that were part of the normal course of business for the federal government,” Walz said. “Folks in government aren’t seeing the connection between the actions they take and the consequences for kids everyday.”

The below images were taken from the report:

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