Poverty and Neglect Are Not the Same — It’s Time to Realign Our Response

By Jody Levison-Johnson    May 21, 2021

This is the second of a multi-part blog series that will take a detailed look at the American Rescue Plan and the ways in which we can leverage it to strengthen the resiliency of our public health and human services infrastructure, and, in turn, substantially move the needle on social and economic mobility so families succeed for the long run.

Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8   |   Part 9


When Congress passed the Biden Administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, it included a groundbreaking provision that has the potential to cut child poverty in half. The $120 billion provision calls for an expanded Child Tax Credit that will significantly increase resources for families with children under the age of 6. Analysts estimate that 90 percent of the country’s children will benefit from this expanded tax credit, and as a result, millions of children will be lifted from poverty and given the opportunity to thrive.

We know that poverty disproportionately affects families of color. Of the 10.5 million children living in poverty in 2019, nearly 71 percent were children of color. More than one in four black children and one in five Hispanic children were living in families with incomes so low they fell below the official poverty line—$21,330 for a family of three.

For far too long our human and social services systems have been governed in a way that confuses poverty with neglect. These tendencies, coupled with systemic and historic racism, have resulted in a range of systems that unfairly punish families of color living in poverty and end up harming the families and children they are meant to protect.

We know that severe and persistent stress can overload families. In times of recession or economic turmoil, we see the impact in the rise in toxic stress in families that can lead to abuse or neglect, poorer health, and mental health outcomes. But we also know that reducing the financial burdens on families and adding supports can make a huge difference in a very short amount of time. Providing stable incomes and enhancing social supports can reduce the load that families across the nation are under right now.

Our nation has often undergone key societal shifts at times of turmoil. Amidst the twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national racial reckoning further spurred by the death of George Floyd, we have the opportunity to clearly separate the issues of poverty and neglect and realign our systems to better support all families.

Declaring War on Poverty

It was 57 years ago that President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the “war on poverty” noting in his 1964 State of the Union address that “our aim is to not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

The sweeping package of legislation that accompanied that declaration led to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, expanded Social Security benefits, established the food stamps program, Job Corps, and the VISTA program and launched the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), a branch of the White House responsible for championing the war on poverty.

These programs had a measurable impact in reducing childhood poverty rates. By 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 10 million children in the U.S. lived below the federal poverty line, representing the lowest rate of childhood poverty since 2009.

But while progress was made in curbing poverty, the United States has not kept pace with the investments of other nations toward family support services. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 37th among OECD nations only ahead of Turkey for its investment in family supports. While our per capita health care spending, which totals more than $10,000 per person a year, dwarfs other developed countries, our investment in human services is relatively small. Researchers have begun to draw a linkage between that investment disparity and health outcomes, noting that “states with higher ratios of social to health spending had better health outcomes one and two years later.”

The potential to improve health outcomes and more fully address social determinants of health through greater investments in human services have inspired many of us who work in the sector to imagine the potential societal returns across a range of systems, including health, education, welfare, and criminal justice. This reimagining had begun to take shape in 2020 with a broad coalition of organizations working together to reform “child welfare systems” into “child and family wellbeing systems.”

And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

The Impact of a Global Pandemic and Racial Reckoning

Many gains made in recent years in addressing social determinants of health were immediately washed away in the aftermath of COVID-19. With the United States serving as the epicenter of the pandemic, which to date has infected more than 30 million Americans and taken the lives of nearly three million world-wide, the impact has been swift. As a result of the pandemic, unemployment rose to an all-time high of 14.7 percent. As Americans lost jobs, they also lost access to health insurance. An estimated 51 million U.S. school children have been impacted by school closures, including reduced access to national school lunch and breakfast programs. Thirty-eight percent of Americans reported experiencing food insecurity.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty & Social Policy, using a supplemental poverty measure to try to quantify the impacts of COVID-19 on poverty, found that children were the most impacted by rising poverty rates. Before the pandemic, the monthly child poverty rate was 18.7 percent. By August 2020, it had risen to a high of 21.4 percent, as compared to 16.1 percent for adults.

Families of color fared the worst.

Early in 2020, 24 percent of both Black and Hispanic individuals were in monthly poverty, as compared to 11 percent of white individuals. By September 2020, the poverty gap grew for families of color to 26 percent, even after low-income families received the stimulus checks and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) payments meant to counteract the impact of the pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has similarly disproportionately impacted families of color, white Americans have not been immune to the health and economic impacts, creating a growing awareness that, at times, all families are vulnerable.

Perhaps, as our nation tackles the twin crises of this global pandemic and racial reckoning on the heels of the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many others, we have the opportunity to build that awareness into a movement that can reform our health and human service system in a way that does not equate poverty with neglect, nor misfortune with misdeed.

The movement starts with an examination of the role that racism plays in all of the systems that make up our human and social services sector.

Poverty, Neglect and Social Services

Perhaps no system has struggled more with the confusion between poverty and neglect than the child welfare system. A low-income parent of color is more likely to be reported for abuse or neglect, that report is more likely to be substantiated, and that child of color is more likely to enter the foster care system than his or her white counterpart. While black children make up 13.7 percent of the population, they make up 23 percent of children in foster care.

In a December 2019 post in The Children’s Bureau Express, Dr. Jerry Milner, then associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau and David Kelly, special assistant to the associate commissioner, wrote: “We have to be honest that a large part of the problem is the way we see and judge families that make contact with the system. We see poor and vulnerable families as the ‘other.’ The role that poverty plays in child welfare decision-making is a topic that has yet to be meaningfully confronted and addressed. Poverty is a risk factor for neglect, but poverty does not equate to neglect. The presence of poverty alone does not mean a child is unsafe, unloved, or that a parent lacks the capacity to care for his or her child…. We must be resoundingly clear that a child should never be removed from his or her family due to poverty alone. We must also be very clear that poverty is disproportionately present in communities of color and that this fact carries direct implications for child welfare.”

We know that neglect is the most commonly reported form of child maltreatment, and it can have long-term effects on children’s health and development. But we also know that child neglect is more likely in families that are experiencing an overload of stress. The weight of poverty, especially, can overload parents’ abilities to provide the supportive relationships children need.

It is time to reframe the conversation around child welfare and acknowledge the impact of poverty on families. We must train those within the system to recognize and connect the dots between aspects of structural racism that are becoming familiar to the public – such as police violence or lack of access to quality housing – and the ways those experiences can hamper and impede safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.

This will require policies that incentivize child welfare workers to look deeper into economic challenges that reflect a lack of resources for families rather than simply labeling them as flawed families. And it requires a system that moves resources upstream with a stronger focus on prevention and the type of family supports, including workforce development, economic assistance, child care support, housing, and more, that can prevent tragedies before they occur.

These racial biases infuse our education systems as well. Black students are subjected to disciplinary action at higher rates than white students. The digital divide disproportionately impacts families of color making it harder for children to access virtual learning and resulting in significant learning loss. Children of color are more likely to be charged with truancy and to wind up in the criminal justice system as a result, often because families lack the resources to access child care and other services that enable children to attend school.

A recent study from the Federal Reserve acknowledged the impact of child poverty on prosperity later in life. Fed Chair Janet Yellen spoke about the research and the importance of education and life skills, noting: “This research underscores the value of starting young to develop basic work habits and skills. These habits and skills help prepare people for work, help them enter the labor market sooner, meet with more success over time and be in a position to develop the more specialized skills and obtain the academic credentials that are strongly correlated with higher and steadier earnings.”

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have reached such a peak that the Sentencing Project issued a report to the United Nations highlighting the disturbing trends. In it, they outlined the fact that blacks are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for lengthier periods than whites. One out of every three black boys born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. The report concluded: “The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color. The wealthy can access a vigorous adversary system replete with constitutional protections for defendants. Yet the experiences of poor and minority defendants within the criminal justice system often differ substantially from that model due to a number of factors, each of which contributes to the overrepresentation of such individuals in the system.”

These are not isolated examples and point to a disturbing conclusion. Too often, these systems that are meant to support families wind up harming them instead.

It’s Time to Think Differently About Neglect

It’s time that we take a different approach to addressing neglect – one that supports families in need rather than penalizing them.

New research from Chapin Hall that focuses on the impact of economic supports on family and child wellbeing supports this approach. They found that restricting access to family supports had measurable negative impacts, including:

  • States that implemented TANF sanctions of loss of all benefits for not working saw a 13 percent increase in foster care entries.
  • States that implemented TANF time limits of less than five years saw an increase in identified child victims and an increase in neglect.
  • States with denial rates that increase more than 20% in two years saw an increase in identified child victims and an increase in foster care entries.

Conversely, a less restricted approach to economic supports saw the following gains:

  • A $1,000 increase in income through the Earned Income Tax Credit is associated with an 8-10% reduction in foster care entry rates.
  • For every $1 increase in the minimum wage, there was a 9.6% reduction in neglect reports, primarily for children 12 and under.
  • States with expanded Medicaid, compared to those without, experienced a decrease in reported neglect. Specifically, there were 422 fewer cases per 100,000 children younger than age 6 for each study year.
  • In one study, families involved in supportive housing programs experienced a 9% child removal rate. Families in a control group with comparable demographics experienced a 40% removal rate.
  • Participation in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) is associated with a lower risk of abuse and neglect reports.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Looking at the data around the positive impacts of economic support programs on our social service systems, we have both an opportunity and a mandate to realign the way we think about poverty and neglect and to rebuild our systems to strengthen child and family wellbeing and better support families in need.

For far too long our nation has failed to make the necessary investments in positive childhood experiences and building protective factors that mitigate childhood adversity. The COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the fact that no family is fully immune to adversity or struggle.

Working across the sector, we must elevate our voices in support of economic supports as a core component of an evidence-based prevention policy agenda. This includes leveraging the Family First Prevention Services Act to invest more in prevention and upstream resources. It means ongoing support for policies that have been shown to have an impact on child and family wellbeing, including economic supports and care coordination. It means investing in front-end prevention services, such as Family Resource Centers, by fully funding the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to build out a more robust community support system. It also means ongoing support for policies that have been shown to have an impact on child and family wellbeing, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, expanded Medicaid coverage, access to home visiting, and more.

Our test as a nation is whether we can change our course and realign our systems to better support families rather than vilify them, and to decouple our concepts of poverty and neglect and leave systemic and implicit bias in our nation’s past.

Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8   |   Part 9

About the Author

Jody Levison-Johnson

President and CEO
Alliance for Strong Families and Communities & Council on Accreditation

Jody Levison-Johnson is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and Council on Accreditation. She is a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of experience in the field of human services. She is a longstanding champion for systems change that results in the ability for individuals and communities to thrive. Jody holds a Master of Social Work degree from Syracuse University and a Master of Arts and PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University.

Poverty and Neglect Are Not the Same — It’s Time to Realign Our Response

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