clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

1 in 7 US children live in poverty. Misplaced fears over single mothers could be why.

Child welfare programs are broadly popular, but a new Vox/Data for Progress poll indicates America might not be able to shake longstanding worries to implement them.

People carry food donated by volunteers from the Baltimore Hunger Project outside of Padonia International Elementary School on December 4, 2020, in Cockeysville, Maryland.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

One in seven American children live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress. Despite the nation’s wealth, the United States has one of the worst child poverty rates among similarly developed countries.

A new poll from Vox and Data for Progress indicates that despite the popularity of child welfare programs, one of the reasons we’ve failed to help millions of children could be a concern that’s dogged public welfare programs for decades: widespread concern that some may take advantage of these benefits.

The introduction of Sen. Mitt Romney’s Family Security Act earlier this month centered child poverty in the national political conversation and drew praise from conservative and liberal sources alike. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained, the bill “overhauls the current child tax credit and turns it from a once-a-year bonus to massive income support, paid out monthly by the Social Security Administration” that would help not just parents with substantial income but lower-paid families too.

But the Utah Republican’s surprising bill prompted backlash from Republicans and some conservative researchers.

In a statement released the day of the bill’s release, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT) called Romney’s plan “welfare assistance” and declared that “being pro-family is being pro-work,” insinuating that giving families this benefit would induce them to stay at home. Scott Winship, the director of poverty studies at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, also came out against the plan, citing concerns in an interview with the New York Times’s Ezra Klein that single mothers “could afford not to work.”

Several prominent researchers including Sam Hammond, the director of poverty and welfare policy at the right-leaning Niskanen Center think tank, and Matt Darling, an economist at Ideas42, a behavioral economics nonprofit, have cited several pieces of research pushing back against these claims. In a debate with Winship, Hammond said even if people do work less with the expanded benefit, “what we’re talking about is in the realm of an hour lost of work per week” — in exchange for lifting 5.1 million people out of poverty.

But, like always, the politics of welfare can be more important than the reality. In the Data for Progress/Vox poll, conducted February 12 to 15 among 1,169 likely voters, respondents were told that “some lawmakers in Congress are proposing creating a child allowance ... open to all middle-class and low-income families. If this program is created, how concerned or not concerned would you be that some single mothers would choose to slightly reduce the number of hours they work for a wage each week?”

A majority (57 percent) of respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned, including 49 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of independents.

Data for Progress/Vox poll conducted February 12 to 15, 2021, among 1,169 likely voters.

To be clear: The polling around providing money for kids is incredibly popular. In another Data for Progress poll, 68 percent support a child allowance plan, with strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents.

But when presented with the possibility that single mothers, who have historically been scapegoated as “welfare queens,” might slightly reduce work hours, the American electorate showcases its long-held commitment to the so-called “dignity of work.” The welfare queen myth was popularized by President Ronald Reagan, who depicted the welfare system as riddled with fraud and abuse by undeserving actors, stirring up anti-Black and anti-poor sentiment.

Neither Romney’s plan nor a similar plan released by Democrats would provide nearly enough to live on without working.

While Romney’s plan, introduced earlier this month, would be “one of the most generous child-benefit packages ever, regardless of political party,” as Matthews reported, it would only be $3,000 to $4,200 a year per child. The plan would provide a flat monthly allowance to parents; those with kids up to 5 years old would get $350 a month, and those with kids between 6 and 17 would get $250 a month — certainly not enough to live off. Similarly, the Democrats’ plan, announced quickly after Romney showcased his, would provide between $3,000 and $3,600 a year.

But the fact remains that Americans are receptive to scapegoating single parents (especially mothers) for not working or not working hard enough. Republican senators have already shown that they’re willing to strike this chord if these plans gain enough traction.

Previous polling by Vox and Data for Progress has explored how the American electorate’s commitment to ensuring “fairness” in how government benefits are distributed can undercut the effectiveness of these programs and harm millions of people in need.

It remains to be seen if fretting over single moms getting relief from the government wins out against the possibility of lifting millions of children out of poverty.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.