Tuesday, October 15, 2013

We've Moved - New PolicyforResults Blog!!!

We are excited to announce that we have a brand new blog! Our new blog is housed on our newly designed PolicyforResults website.  Don't worry - we've moved our old content over so you can still read and comment on the policy posts found here. And, there will be even more new information on the new blog!
There will be a lot of new content and updated data coming soon! Come and visit!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Impact of the Government Shutdown on Children and Families

While the government shutdown is well into its second week, it is important to keep in mind the devastating consequences that are continuing to impact the most vulnerable children and families. Though programs that directly ensure public health and safety have avoided the spending freeze, including Medicaid and Social Security, most of the programs that are affected are still vital supports and services that help sustain young women and children, low-income families, and the elderly.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides temporary financial assistance to help pregnant women and families pay for food, shelter, utilities, and expenses other than medical costs, has stopped awarding new funds, however states have the option to continue providing benefits with state dollars. Since TANF provides significant services in addition to cash assistance, such as GED preparation, vocational training, postsecondary education, vocational rehabilitation, help with child care, work stipends, job retention services and more, discontinuing the program during the shut-down – particularly if it continues for much longer - would be a devastating for families in need.

Head Start programs will also be affected by the shutdown—a total of 23 programs serving 19,000 children will be affected as their grants begin to expire. Those cuts are in addition to the 57,000 children pushed of Head Start as a result of the sequester, on top of a $400 million mandatory cut to the program nationwide. The longer the shutdown continues, the more Head Start programs and young children will be adversely impacted.

Implications of the government shutdown to nutrition programs are equally alarming. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps over 47 million low-income Americans, will continue providing benefits, but only until the end of October. States have the option of continuing the SNAP program through 2014, but the $2 billion available for contingency funds that would be used to compensate the loss of funding would not be enough to support the program in the long-term, since SNAP provides about $6 billion in support to families per month.

The Special, Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which assists over 9 million at-risk mothers, infants, and young children in accessing healthy food, nutrition information, and health referrals, will also continue until the end of October. Like SNAP, most states have funds to continue WIC for a week or so, but the program won’t be able to continue for very long, with emergency funds running out by the end of the month.

The impact on supplemental nutrition programs is also impacting the elderly. Senior Nutrition Programs have stopped as a result of the shutdown. The Department of Health and Human Services can no longer fund Meals on Wheels, which provides more than one million home-delivered meals to seniors who need them each day. This crucial service has also been impacted by the sequester, which is discussed in this previous post.

The government shutdown is risking the basic supports and services low-income families need to survive. Although there are emergency funds to continue certain programs in the meantime, the long-term consequences will be harmful and widespread. State policymakers should use their discretion to continue the programs that can provide supports and services to vulnerable families; however, the only sustainable solution is for the government to go back to work in serving children and their families as soon as possible to minimize the impact.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Poverty and the Brain

Recent findings show that living in poverty, and the mental strains associated, can impede proper brain functioning. A series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom concluded that living in poverty can tax the cognitive abilities of anyone experiencing it and that those cognitive abilities return when the burden of poverty disappears. In essence, the research found that poverty imposes such a substantial burden that people living under those circumstances have difficulty making important decisions.

Previously released studies showed a correlation between poverty and “counterproductive behavior.” For example, these studies found that the poor are less likely to have preventative health care, fail to adhere to drug regimens, are tardier, and less likely to keep appointments. These behaviors can deepen poverty; however, previous explanations have only focused on the impact of environmental conditions as an explanation—predatory lenders in poor communities may create high interest rate borrowing, and unreliable transportation can cause tardiness and absenteeism. Other studies have focused on what they deemed the “characteristics of the poor,” for example lower levels of formal education that can create misunderstandings about contract terms, and less parental attention that may influence the parenting style of the next generation.

The research recently conducted at Princeton, Harvard, and Warwick is dedicated to a different explanation of poverty, one which focuses on the mental processes required for living in impoverished conditions. Their findings suggest a strong relationship between poverty and mental functioning. The poor must deal with having an inconsistent stream of income, juggle expenses, and are often forced to make difficult compromises, and these everyday occurrences can be distracting. Constant worries about budgetary concerns diminish the cognitive resources available to make thoughtful choices and actions-restricting the ability of people living in poverty to provide full consideration to problems that arise. The findings show that the mental burden of poverty is equivalent to losing 13 IQ points, which is the same as losing an entire night of sleep and is comparable to the cognitive difference observed between chronic alcoholics and “normal” adults.

As the report states, “Being poor means coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.” The importance of this research indicates that the problems associated with the poor are not actually within poor people themselves, but with anyone who finds themselves living in poverty. These findings have important policy implications—policymakers should create strategies and solutions that reduce and avoid cognitive taxes on the poor. Policies focused on alleviating poverty through raising the minimum wage as California recently did, help to address some of the institutional factors impacting poor families across the country. Other policies, which mitigate the effects of poverty, such as food assistance and health care are also ways to assist families trying to make ends meet.

In response to the recently released poverty data, it is important to keep in mind how many people are living within these conditions. Federal budget issues such as the maintained sequester cuts, totaled at a reduction of $986.3 billion in overall discretionary funding, are detrimental to the families that depend on these supports and services to survive.  This not only impacts parents and their children financially – but also cognitively.