trays of printed social security checks from the US Treasury

A proposal to wipe out childhood poverty in the US

A Social Security benefit for the nation’s neediest kids would virtually eradicate poverty for children, says one leading economist.

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If every needy child received the average Social Security benefit given to seniors, childhood poverty could be essentially eradicated.

Bradley C Bower/AP Images

More than 10 million American children lived below the poverty line before the COVID-19 crisis, and now, with months of school closures, rising food insecurity and increasing unemployment, the situation has become even more dire for low-income families.

Federal spending on children in the US has lagged well behind other wealthy nations for years, and the country has not done nearly enough to fight child poverty, according to Melissa Kearney, a professor of economics at The University of Maryland and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kearney has a bold idea about how to turn the tide, though. If every needy youngster was given the average Social Security benefit (normally distributed to just those 65 and older), we could eradicate child poverty in America — all it would require is the political will, she says.

Three takeaways

  • Kearney’s plan, which she describes as currently in the “thought experiment” phase, would cost $179 billion a year if every child living in poverty received the average Social Security payment (about $17,000 a year). However, she thinks it would be fairer to phase out the benefit as a family’s income rises, allowing children who are close to the official poverty threshold to get some assistance as well.
  • A Social Security benefit program for poor kids could be funded by rolling back some of the tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans during the 2017 tax overhaul, Kearney says. The massive social insurance program, originally introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, has been a hugely successful anti-poverty program for seniors, she explains.
  • While Kearney expects some skepticism about her idea of giving out direct cash payments to low-income parents, who might (in theory) choose not to use the money to support their children, she says the positive outcomes of other benefit programs indicate otherwise. She considers her proposal “a social investment” that would more than pay for itself in the long run because the children lifted out of poverty would be much more likely to get good jobs as adults and contribute to society with their taxes, instead of needing expensive entitlement programs.