Last month ago in New York, a little boy named Zamair Coombs was killed by his mother. Though little has been said about the circumstances of this Brooklyn family, it is known that they were at least occasionally smoking marijuana, and that the mother had had visits from children’s services before. A witness to her arrest noted that she seemed emotionless at the time of her arrest. Another boy died in a different family before Zamair, named Zymere Perkins. That mother too, had seemed indifferent to the death of her child, and not even the realization that he was gone forever seemed to wake the emotion in her.
These stories are sad, and they make us angry. The media publish headlines such as "Monster Mom." The stories suggest that abuse of children is fueled by cruel, even evil parents, who indulge in pot-smoking and other self indulgent behavior, who have a short fuse, and who must be constantly watched by a fat and well funded child abuse bureaucracy in order to prevent these ghouls from killing their own children. But the stories rarely go below the surface and acknowledge that parenting while in poverty causes a distress and despair that can crack the most resilient parent. And in pretending that these parents are monsters, we miss another opportunity to truly change the economy for the betterment of children.
But what if it is poverty, lack of heat, lack of rent money, and the shame and humiliation of a lack of everything, that turn some ordinary struggling parents into ghouls?
Could our government, and our economy, instead of funding punitive bureaucracies, fund every family so that basic survival needs were met, and the consequent stress of impending poverty, eviction, and hunger, were wiped out? This could be accomplished efficiently through a Universal Basic Income.
We don't need to increase funding for child abuse prevention, we need to unburden society of the many cases that are opened just because a family is poor. Poverty can look a lot like neglect, but it isn't. Willful child neglect and abuse are combatted through mental health services, drug abuse treatment, sometimes through removing children from abusive homes, and prosecution of the abusers. Poverty is solved by giving families the cash they need to meet their children's needs. These two different problems have been mixed up in the public conscience for way too long, and as a result, poverty has grown while financial resources get funneled more to investigating and prosecuting child abuse and neglect. Sadly, families who have done nothing other than be poor get reported for child neglect SIX times as often as families who have sufficient income.
When I was a child protective services caseworker, most of the cases were not true neglect (a parent being unwilling to meet a child’s basic needs despite having the means to do so), but poverty. If we funded a Universal Basic Income, the constant suspected neglect reports against poor families would logically shrink as poor parents began using the basic income to meet their children's needs.
A relatively low percentage of suspected child abuse and neglect cases turn out to be true.
At my first official training in child protective services in 2011, I learned that there are about 156,000 reports of suspected abuse and neglect to the New York State hotline every year. Of all the investigations opened, 70 percent are “unfounded,” meaning they are determined to be not credible. Only about three percent of a year's reports are found to be credible reports of abuse. The other 27% of credible reports are reports of neglect—many of these for inadequate supervision—an allegation that has ballooned since welfare to work rules have pushed poor people into compulsory work programs which they have to show up for, and to which they are not allowed to bring their children. The race to patch together safe child care armed with nothing but a welfare voucher begins.
Then, a well meaning neighbor sees a child without a warm coat on a bitter day; or a teacher will notice a child is always hungry. Or the stress of being in a homeless shelter or having your child care cut off will trigger a vicious argument that catches the attention of others. There are also child abuse reports to the state hotline that are pure fiction, fueled by disagreements between exes, parents, brothers and neighbors, many of them around money. A Universal Basic Income could eliminate a lot of these reports, thereby unburdening the system, so that the only reports on a social services worker’s desk would be those that were not there because those families don’t have enough money to buy the basics of survival.
Talk to people who are currently or previously working as child protective specialists in New York, and they will tell you that their caseloads are unmanageable, not because every family is headed by a monstrous abuser, but because poverty is pervasive and cash aid is less and less available.
We cannot continue to live in a la la land where we can supposedly save kids without eliminating poverty. Yet in the past twenty years, we have steered more and more cash to punishing poor people and trying to get them to behave as if they did not have the stress they have, while reducing cash assistance and at the same time raising their stress levels beyond what a person can tolerate. Maybe the mother of Zamair Combs seemed “emotionless” at her arrest because her stress became too much to bear. People forget that poverty is the worst form of violence, according to Gandhi; and it can cause trauma just as a train wreck, a flood, or any other disaster.
To end poverty requires simple cash aid to people who have none. The United States has seen a cutback in cash aid to poor families—since 1996's shift from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to Bill Clinton's “welfare reform.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the time called Clinton's plan “legislative child abuse” and he was right. We now have poverty so severe that we have unprecedented homelessness, one in four children obese, and new social scourges like “opioid orphans” in the wealthiest country in the world. In 1969, 97% of poor children lived in families that got some cash aid to meet their needs. Today, only 28% of poor children do. Nationwide, every state cuts cash aid and leaves the majority of its poor families out of their welfare programs. There are states whose welfare rolls are only one percent of its residents known to be living below the poverty line. New York's public assistance benefit is only 60% of a poverty line income, but there are states—like Tennessee—where the benefit is 10% of a poverty line income. There are states—like Maine—where bureaucrats have cut 60% of their families from public assistance in only two years. In 2015, New York state allowed over $111 million in federal welfare funds to go unspent, when it could have spent it easily on cash aid to families, to housing subsidies, to children. The year prior to that, New York state kept $104 million. That money could have helped families directly and prevented a lot of calls to the New York State child abuse hotline. One of the saddest and most frustrating realities of the United States is that a destitute child in her own family is unlikely to receive any cash assistance at all, and when she does, it is pegged between 10% and 60% of the poverty line. But if her mother or father succumb to the stress and hopelessness of it all and the child goes to a foster home, the foster parent will received FOUR times the cash assistance that the child’s parents received through welfare. This is a terrible way to provide for American children, and it is rooted in centuries old prejudices that view poverty as a personal flaw. In our post modern economy, these prejudices are rendered absurd. We need a better way, and that way is a Universal Basic Income.
Renewing our national and local commitments to giving families cash assistance is how we will save children—not by funding child abuse and neglect prevention. You can be a part of this conversation here and in person, June 15-18th, in New York City, at the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network conference in New York City. See www.usbig.net to register.
By - Diane Pagen