By Guest Columnist PAM TATUM, executive director of Quality Care for Children
Upward mobility is not as elusive as it is sometimes presented. In fact it is no more elusive than good public policy and wise investments.
As Maria Saporta pointed out in her February article “City of Atlanta’s income divide of rich and poor – it didn’t have to be this way,” Atlanta leaders recognized that a strong middle class was in the city’s interest decades ago and actually had a pretty good plan for making it happen. Unfortunately, no one implemented the plan – or even parts of it.
What struck me most about the Atlanta Renaissance Plan was the proposed initiative to provide more assistance to help single moms find work and get ahead. Single moms are often misunderstood and, at times, even demonized in our society.
What most single moms and dads lack are not moral standards or a sound work ethic. What they are missing is a second income, which most families who are trying to make ends meet need in today’s economy. On average single moms are struggling to raise their children on an income that is 31 percent of the median income for two parent families.
Of course, a good first income that provides a living wage is needed most, but for financially struggling single parents that comes with its own Catch 22, commonly called the Cliff Effect. For working low-income families that qualify for help, such as with child care subsidies, housing benefits and SNAP, they can end up worse financially the harder they work and more money they make as an increase in pay can lead to loss of benefits.
To “attack poverty,” as the plan indicated, we must provide the incentives and resources to help these stressed families. When we fail to support single parents, we are also turning our backs on their children. In Georgia, where close to 20 percent of our residents live in poverty – including one in four children, 40 percent of these families are single-parent households with the majority being headed by women.
What do single parents need to pull their families out of poverty? Having a good job is a start, but in order to work they need child care – and it doesn’t come cheap. In many cases child care costs as much or more than the monthly mortgage or rent, or more than college tuition.
In Fulton County, according to data from Quality Care for Children, the average cost of child care is $9,100 per year which consumes almost 15 percent of the reported median income of $62,000. A low-income, single mother could not afford this for one child, much less two or more.
We have always known that for moms to work someone has to care for the children. Single mothers are often advised that surely there must be someone — a friend, neighbor, or a relative who can “watch “ the children while they work, attend job training or go to college. But even if they are successful at finding that someone to “watch” the children, we know how shortsighted that advice is.
We know more now than ever before about how young brains develop and just how important the first three years are to a child’s later success. We know the value of starting early with high-quality early learning programs, and we are much too familiar with the cost of failure.
Young children don’t need to be “watched,” they need to be in safe, stimulating and educational environments with trained teachers where they can develop, learn and flourish. Studies indicate that this high-quality care will increase their chances of success in school, graduating from high school, attending college, and earning a good income.
Working parents, whether single or married, need stable, consistent child care that allows them to pursue employment, college, or job training, while preparing their children for success in school and beyond. It is even more imperative for our low-income families to have this support but Georgia’s child care assistance is limited, leaving many needy families with no help at all.
When child care support is offered through our state child care subsidies, it is so restrictive that it becomes virtually impossible for families to get ahead. It’s the Cliff Effect — just as they see a slight increase in income or work hours, bringing in a few dollars more a week, they become ineligible for the child care subsidy. For a $20 increase in weekly income, it is likely that their expenses will increase by $100 or more due to the loss of benefits.
The only way they can survive is to turn down the raise, the promotion or the increase in work hours. Surely this is not a strategy for growing the middle class. Child care subsidy policies are currently under review by a statewide task force that will make recommendations for needed revisions.
While we can make the cliff less steep, without additional resources we cannot make the cliff go away or serve all of the families in need of assistance.
Our failure to provide single parents the child care resources and support they need to work and get ahead, and to educate their children, not only keeps them out of the middle class, but also limits their children’s opportunities.
Child poverty is linked to poor health and school dropout; to negative adult outcomes including joblessness; and, to reduced economic output. Not only is it morally right to invest in these families, it is economically sound because when poverty decreases so does the need for increased taxpayer support of social services.
Child care assistance, this two-generation strategy for growing the middle class, is not complicated, but it does take resources. If we do not invest the resources, we give up on the parent getting ahead, the child entering school prepared to succeed, and a best-in-class city with a vibrant middle class.
Our choice is to invest now in accessible high-quality child care, or pay staggering costs later and continue to fail our working poor in their attempt to escape poverty.
This is the second Guest Column that was written in response to Maria Saporta’s column about the Brookings Institution’s report stating that the City of Atlanta has the widest income gap among top cities in the country. The first Guest Column response was written by Michael Dobbins, and it ran last week.
For more information on Quality Care for Children, please visit its website. The 30-year-old nonprofit organization works to ensure children receive excellent care and early learning experiences by helping parents access quality affordable care for children and by providing training and resources to childcare providers.