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Lawmakers Consider 2 Plans For Monthly Payments To Address Child Poverty

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The COVID relief bill working its way through Congress is full of big ideas to help people. But one idea is so big it was politically unthinkable not that long ago. Lawmakers want to fight child poverty by giving families a few hundred dollars every month for every child in their household - no strings attached. Not only does this have President Biden's support, Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah has his own version. NPR's Cory Turner explains how the two plans compare and how the U.S. got here.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: As wealthy nations go, and their commitment to reducing child poverty, the U.S. stinks. More than 10 million children in the U.S. live below the official poverty line. And that's bad news for all of us, says Elaine Maag, who studies tax policy at the Urban Institute.

ELAINE MAAG: So there is fascinating research out there that shows children in poverty, their brains are actually not developing at the same pace or in the same ways as children in well-resourced households, so the children become disadvantaged for life.

TURNER: Which is why so many other wealthy countries already give families a child benefit - Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, Luxembourg, South Korea, Ireland, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands. The economists and public policy experts I spoke with all say there is a very clear upside to lifting kids out of poverty - not just for kids, but for the whole country.

PAMELA HERD: Kids are healthier...

TIM SMEEDING: More likely to finish school...

HILARY HOYNES: More likely to attend college...

SMEEDING: ...Less likely to go to prison.

HOYNES: ...Less likely to be recipients of public assistance when they're older.

SMEEDING: They're more likely to work, more likely to get married...

HOYNES: They're less likely to be engaged in criminal activity.

SMEEDING: ...All this other long-run stuff.

HOYNES: And they live longer.

HERD: We know this.

HOYNES: And all of those things are great for the child, but they're also great for society.

TURNER: That was Hilary Hoynes at the University of California Berkeley, Pamela Herd at Georgetown University and Tim Smeeding of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In short, says Bradley Hardy at American University...

BRADLEY HARDY: My view is that it's the right thing to do, but also, it is sound economic policy.

TURNER: The politics of this big idea have come a long way since the 1990s and the bipartisan push to reform welfare that was supposed to be about fighting child poverty. Instead, Herd says, it ended up being about parents.

HERD: Nearly all of the emphasis was just basically on getting poor single mothers back into the workplace.

TURNER: At the time, Republicans and many Democrats believed that help for parents in need should be tied to work, says Hoynes.

HOYNES: What was missing and that entire conversation is the fact that we're talking about assistance for children.

TURNER: Hoynes, along with Tim Smeeding, was also part of a committee charged by Congress in 2015 with studying how to reduce child poverty. In its report, the committee proposed precisely the kind of monthly cash benefit the Democrats and Romney are now pushing. Both plans would blow up something currently known as the child tax credit. Elaine Maag says right now, millions of children live in families that don't earn enough to get the full credit.

MAAG: And so this results in sort of this upside-down benefit where the lowest-income children get the smallest benefit.

TURNER: To fix that, both plans would throw out any income requirements, thereby reaching the poorest families. Democrats would give $3,600 a year for each child under 6 and $3,000 for older kids. Romneys benefit would be even more generous and reach more higher-income families. Both plans also embrace the idea of a monthly benefit, says Hardy, to help families with unpredictable incomes but regular costs, like rent, food and child care.

HARDY: And so if you have a child allowance like this, all of a sudden, you have more of a buffer, more of a cushion that can address these concerns.

TURNER: As for differences between the plans, Democrats have proposed expanding several other programs that also serve the poor, while Romney wants to cut some of those same programs to help pay for it all. Democrats' plan would put the IRS in charge, while Romney's would lean on the Social Security Administration. Either way, experts say, Congress could cut child poverty by a third or more.

Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.