UNICEF reports that child poverty in the US was held in check during the Great Recession

UNICEF Children of the Recession Innocenti Report Card 12 CoverIt is an understatement to say that the US welfare reforms of the 1990s were intended to give a little spring to the social safety net.

The intention was much more radical, involving a major make-over of income support, and turning what was imagined as a net ensnarling many Americans behind a welfare wall, into a trampoline, a springboard that would incentivize work and allow them to ride a wave of prosperity to higher incomes that would lift their children out of poverty.

But this is hardly what is needed when times turn bad.

The only virtue of a trampoline when employment falls by more than 8 million, when the unemployment rate more than doubles, and when median incomes drop by over $10,000, is that it catches you on the way down.

American families needed a safety net during the Great Recession, and a report released by UNICEF on child poverty suggests, surprisingly enough, that is exactly what they got.

The rate of child poverty, in spite of all the macroeconomic turbulence of the last six years, has hardly budged. This is in large measure because of discretionary policy changes on the part of the Federal government that quickly turned the clock back to the welfare system of the 1980s.

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Inequality and social mobility, an interesting discussion

Canada2020 event February 26 2013

“The idea that all citizens should have an equal chance to succeed in life, regardless of where they start, is fundamental to liberal societies and emblematic of the American—and Canadian—dream” is the way a Canadian think tank, Canada2020, introduces a panel discussion it hosted that explored the idea of economic mobility, why it is important, and how it is related to inequality of outcomes.

I was a member of the panel and had a very interesting—and at times humorous and entertaining—discussion with Zanny Minton Beddoes the economics editor of The Economist, Carolyn Acker the founder of Pathways to Education, and Ron Haskins a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. You can view the entire discussion, which was moderated by Diana Carney, by clicking on the following screen shot (and waiting a bit for it to load):

The short presentation I made at the beginning of the talk is, if you are interested, available here: Equality_of_Opportunity_A_Canadian_Dream_for_Canada2020

I plan on revising the background document I wrote for the event—which you can download from the Canada2020 website—and would therefore be very pleased to hear your views on the discussion, and any specific feedback you might have.

The right way to think about social and economic rights

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which we celebrate every December 10th, offers both a powerful and beautiful statement of what it means to be human and the goals we should pursue as a society. But the Declaration is an incomplete guide to designing the programs to meet these goals: it offers inspiration to advocates, but not a guidebook for pragmatists.

Pragmatists and policy makers need to read the Universal Declaration through the lens of economists, rather than don the robes of lawyers.

Human Rights Day 2012, click to enlarge

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The US Senate wonders about tax policy for the American Dream: How can income transfers be designed to benefit all children in need?

The tax system is increasingly used to transfer cash benefits to families with children, but the United States accepts the trade-offs in program design very differently than other countries and gives children much less support.

In response to my July 10th testimony to the Senate Committee on Finance hearing on “Helping Young People Achieve the American Dream” I received some homework, a series of questions asking me for a good deal more detail. You can review all of the questions on my November 11th post. Child poverty is central to discussions of social mobility, and it is natural to wonder how tax policy can be designed to support the incomes of the least advantaged.

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The US Senate wonders about tax policy for the American Dream: Do parents act in the best interests of their children?

How should programs intended to support children in low-income families be designed if parents don’t always act in the best interests of their children?

This question, among others, was posed to me in response to my July 10th testimony to the Senate Committee on Finance hearing on “Helping Young People Achieve the American Dream.”  You can review all of the questions on my November 11th post.

In one way or another they address the fundamental drivers of the extent to which children grow up to be adults having the same socio-economic status as their parents. Family background matters for life chances because of three related forces: inequalities originating in the labour market, the capacity of families to invest in the skills and aptitudes of their children, and the degree to which public policy levels the playing field.

What parents do matters a good deal, and a question posed by the Committee Chairperson, Senator Max Baucus, recognizes this, and wonders about the implications for the design of public policy.

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The sad, sad story of the UNICEF Child Poverty Report and its critics

David Morely, UNICEF Canada’s Executive Director, has just issued a bold challenge. “It is clearly time for Canada to prioritize children when planning budgets and spending our nation’s resources, even in tough economic times,” says a press release announcing the publication of a report on child poverty.

In fact, the UNICEF Innocenti Report Card released today is the 10th in a regular series on child poverty in rich countries, each report hitting the headlines every second year or so.

Sadly, when it comes to discussions of child poverty kick-started by these reports there are two things that are not new: the conclusions; and the reaction of pundits and many policy makers. I say “sadly” because the two are not linked, and public policy discussion is not the better.

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