Upstream City #2: Policies that Scaffold Family Life

Upstream City” by FPP Director Nora McCarthy ran as a column in The Imprint from 2022-2023.

This month I’ll look at state and city policies that scaffold healthy family life — and those that are known to put families at risk of investigation and separation. Let’s begin with two real families who became involved with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services:

  • Ms. R was investigated when she had her oldest child stay home from school to watch his little brother while she went to work. She was charged with educational neglect.
  • Ms. G’s children’s school reported her for neglect when she ran out of money for laundry and rinsed her children’s clothes in the bathtub without detergent. 

Zoom out from Ms. R and Ms. G and the systemic nature of their family challenges is clear. 

Take a parent like Ms. R, who cannot stay home to watch a child who falls ill. That reflects worker protections. New York City has a law requiring 40 hours of sick leave. Yet in 2018, roughly 60% of workers living in poverty said they were not paid for any sick days.

Ms. G’s income could not be stretched to cover a basic expense like detergent. That’s not unusual. One in five New York City children live in families that struggle to cover the cost of food, and high percentages of low-income households report being unable to afford minor expenses like school supplies (29%) or a $5.50 Metrocard (20%).

Then there’s the small favors of community that bloom in stable neighborhoods and sustain families. In New York City, family homelessness rose from 2014 to 2019, which means that more parents have ended up in unfamiliar neighborhoods unmoored from family or neighbors who might watch a sick child.

Longer term, the corrosive effects of redlining and low-income housing policies have concentrated poverty so that entire neighborhoods live with scarcity. That makes it harder to, say, use a neighbor’s washer and dryer.

**

New York state law explicitly recognizes that poverty does not constitute neglect, yet school personnel frequently imagine CPS as a helper and call in reports rather than directly connecting families to community supports. This, too, reflects policy — public school guidance counselors and social workers who could assist families have been stretched thin, serving about 400 to 700 students each.

And, in New York, child protective services must investigate or assess every report that would constitute abuse or neglect. The result is that, while child welfare was designed to be an emergency response to abuse, it has become the primary response to families struggling with economic hardship.

Clearly, “upstream” planning begins far from child welfare, with questions like: How is our city doing with ensuring that parents can access child care and reliable public transportation so they can support their families economically? How well are our schools creating a positive environment for children? How are our public policies strengthening or weakening community connections? In short, how are we setting families up to struggle or to flourish?

Recent research on family economic precarity has drawn a clearer picture of the links between our public investments in families and the likelihood of child welfare involvement.

Specifically, as Chapin Hall documented in an April 2022 report:

  • Expanded Medicaid correlates with decreased neglect reports;
  • Paid family leave implementation in California reduced abusive head trauma;
  • Referring homeless families for permanent federal housing subsidies netted a 50 percent drop in foster care removals;
  • Increasing food stamps and other nutrition assistance enrollments reduced substantiated abuse and neglect reports.

Likewise, an analysis of all states between 2010 and 2017 found that the more states spent on financial supports for poor families — cash assistance, housing, child care, a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and medical care —  the fewer the hotline reports, substantiated cases, foster care placements and fatalities. The study concluded that spending on benefits might be offset, at least in part, by reductions in spending to respond to suspected maltreatment.

In recent years, New York City has made a number of major “upstream” investments that lift stress off families. Increases in minimum wage are protective, and the city’s minimum wage rose to $15 an hour in 2019 from $8 in 2014. Eviction is another strong predictor of child welfare involvement, and families in New York now have a right to legal representation in housing court. Waitlists for child care increase investigations, according to Chapin Hall; NYC now provides free pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and, this spring, the state made a new $1 billion child care commitment. (That is a timely investment, because as of March, child care programs run by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services had 35,000 children on the waitlist.)

Despite promising headwinds, however, New York’s safety net remains difficult and time-consuming to access and full of holes. Dramatic declines in welfare spending and housing assistance have weakened the safety net, thinned natural networks and exacerbated stress on low-income families, particularly Black families. While the city defined the poverty threshold for a family of three as $36,262 in 2019, TANF and SNAP benefits combined only net about $17,000. Food stamps often do not last the month, forcing parents to borrow money or spend time accessing pantries, adding stress. 

Housing subsidies that would put stability in reach for thousands of families have failed to pass the Legislature for years. There are also well-documented shortages in children’s mental and behavioral health care, especially psychiatric care. Individual stresses are often compounded for low-income families because securing basic needs, like housing, can come with destabilizing tradeoffs, like the loss of community.

It is largely very low-income families dependent on public services who end up system-involved. Children from families on public benefits or earning under $13,000 for a family of three have made up at least half of those in foster care in New York in recent years. 

Meanwhile, enormous resources are spent on child welfare — investigations and foster care/adoption alone cost $1.2 billion each year. For a sense of proportion, the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity estimates that $6.5 billion would lift every NYC family out of poverty. Existing flexible federal, state and city funding streams now spent reactively on child welfare intervention could be dedicated to the investments proven to reduce investigations, neglect and foster care placement. 

As former Children’s Bureau Special Assistant David Kelly told me, “Federal dollars hold a lot of opportunity to support what I would categorize as child well-being, and could be structured in a way that largely keeps the child welfare agency out of it.”

During the pandemic, New York City saw the immediate impacts of direct economic investment in family life. Even as the COVID-19 shutdown inflicted incredible stress on families, it led to unusual generosity and innovation in moving resources directly to people in need. Evictions were banned. Food stamp regulations were changed so that children’s lunches became available through EBT cards and families were able to use SNAP for prepared foods. Major economic relief came through unemployment benefits, the federal stimulus, the child tax credit and the excluded workers fund. Foundations and nonprofits gave away millions in direct cash assistance with few strings attached.

During this time, all forms of child welfare intervention dropped precipitously, yet there is no indication that NYC children were less safe. Asked in June 2021 whether the pandemic affected child safety, former ACS Commissioner David Hansell answered, “I’m happy to say, and relieved to say, that we haven’t seen any indication in New York City that that’s the case.” 

Despite the benefits to families, legislators allowed the last threads of the pandemic safety net to unravel this winter when they could have more permanently shored up families.

**

If the pandemic’s revelations were akin to stumbling upon an unexpected view, the growing research base on economic precarity can act as sturdy stones laid across a river, offering a path forward.

Looking back at Ms. G and Ms. R, one step toward minimizing child welfare involvement can be to examine the policy factors driving investigations. For Ms. G, better enforcement of sick leave for low-income workers might have helped. Modest cash transfers, which became far more available in the pandemic, might have been a much less expensive solution for Ms. R. 

Right now, families facing economic shocks end up coping with the stress of child welfare involvement as well. Economic policies that blunt the impact of financial setbacks can be less costly and more protective of families. 
This is a choice we can afford. In New York City, a lot of money is going toward punishing poverty that could be spent addressing it. With close attention to emerging research and to what families themselves say they need, we can target the conditions that stress families instead of targeting families themselves.


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