A new report from the People’s Policy Project provides a useful framework for reconceptualizing and expanding policies aimed at helping families in Rhode Island. The ‘Family Fun Pack,’ written by Matt Bruenig, details the shortcomings of the United States’s prevailing approach to family policy and outlines a way forward through universal programs designed to reduce child poverty and help families manage the costs of raising children.
Bruenig introduces seven policy proposals intended to support low-income families and reduce the financial burden of child-rearing. The ‘Family Fun Pack’ proposals are meant to operate at a national level, but these issues should not escape state policymakers. Indeed, the seven proposals form a coherent progressive policy agenda that can be pursued at the state level. If Rhode Island lawmakers, candidates or advocates were to adopt the ‘Family Fun Pack’ agenda, here is what it would look like.
Expanded Parental Leave
Rhode Island is one of only four states – plus Washington DC – to have enacted paid family leave. Rhode Island’s paid family leave program, Temporary Caregiver Insurance (TCI), covers up to four weeks of paid work to care for a new child or ill family member at a 60 percent wage replacement rate. It also mandates job protection for leave-takers.
Insufficient wage replacement may be discouraging low-income Rhode Islanders from using paid family leave. According to Rhode Island Kids Count , 42 percent of workers paying into the program earn less than $20,000, yet this income group constitutes only 19 percent of leave takers. A study of California’s paid family leave program, meanwhile, found that inadequate wage replacement was a leading factor preventing low-income families from taking leave.
Two expansions could improve the effectiveness of TCI. The first, introduced as legislation in the House and Senate in 2018, would increase the wage replacement rate for workers earning less than twice the minimum wage. The second, introduced in the House and Senate in 2017, would expand the maximum paid leave period from four to eight weeks. Taken together, these changes would help families—especially low-income families—make ends meet as they care for children.
Universal Free School Lunch
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By adopting the community eligibility provision principle shown effective in low-income districts in Rhode Island, state-wide universal free lunch would address the hunger and stigma that hold students back while reducing the financial burden on families with school-age children.
In 2017 and 2018, legislation was introduced in the House to require the provision of free or reduced-cost lunch to all students at public elementary and secondary schools. Another proposal, recently introduced by Governor Raimondo, would require public schools in low-income areas to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. Once enacted, either of these programs could be expanded until all students are eligible for free lunch.
Rhode Island currently offers free, high-quality publicly-funded pre-kindergarten administered in public schools, Head Start programs, early learning centers and child care centers. Only one in ten four year olds is enrolled, however, and the program has a long waiting list.
Governor Raimondo has proposed expanding free pre-kindergarten until it is available to every student whose family wants it. The proposal would add approximately 70 classrooms per year until universal access is achieved.
Universal pre-kindergarten is currently offered in Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC.
Universal Child Care
According to the Economic Policy Institute, infant care in Rhode Island costs 19 percent more than in-state public college tuition and 16 percent more than average rent; child care is only marginally less expensive. Without support, low- and moderate-income families would be significantly encumbered by these costs. Rhode Island Kids Count estimates that only 15 percent of families would be able to afford child care without being considered cost burdened and care for one infant would cost 64 percent of a full-time minimum wage worker’s income.
Child care support in Rhode Island is primarily provided through the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). CCAP fully or partially covers the cost of child care for families with income below 225 percent of the federal poverty line. For a two-parent household with two children, the income limit for eligibility is approximately $56,500. Parents must be working or enrolled in an employment, job training or education plan to receive support. Care provided by a licensed day care center, a certified family home day care or an approved relative, friend or neighbor is eligible for the program.
To achieve universal child care, the CCAP income limit could be raised and the work requirement eliminated. Families opting to perform their own child care could also be made eligible for a benefit roughly equal to the per-child salary of a child care worker, as Bruenig proposes.
For nearly a century, Finland has offered every mother-to-be a sturdy cardboard box, which doubles as a bassinet, along with diapers, clothing, bedding and other child-rearing necessities. The free boxes and supplies are accompanied by medical exams and parental education intended to improve infant health and safety.
In the United States, baby boxes are growing in popularity. As Bruenig writes, four United States – Alabama, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas – have implemented free baby box programs. The boxes are typically distributed through a partnership between hospitals and the state. Rhode Island could adopt a similar approach.
The ‘Family Fun Pack’ consolidates a number of federal cash benefits for families with children, such as the Child and Dependent Care Credit (CDCC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), into a single per-child cash allowance. Child allowances exist in nearly every country in the European Union as well as in Canada and Australia, and research has found that they can reduce child poverty while improving children’s educational attainment and health outcomes.
Rhode Island does not offer a CTC against state tax liability, but it does offer a CDCC. The CDCC, which overwhelmingly favors the richest families and does nothing to help low-income families, should be a focus of lawmakers looking to improve the state’s cash benefits. According to the Tax Policy Center, the top twenty percent of income earners receive 41 percent of CDCC benefits while the bottom 40 percent of income earners receive 4 percent of the benefits. State lawmakers could repeal or place a moderate income limit on the CDCC to partially fund a child allowance that would offer each family the same amount of benefits.
According to American Community Survey data, there are about 210,000 children under the age of 18 in Rhode Island. Thus a $1,000 per-year universal child allowance would cost $210 million, equal to approximately 5.2 percent of FY2019 General Fund revenue or 0.4 percent of Rhode Island’s gross domestic product.
Alternatively, lawmakers could replace the CDCC with a fully-refundable and income-limited CTC. In New York, the Empire State Child Credit offers low- and moderate-income families a refundable tax credit equal to $100 per child or 33 percent of their pre-Tax Cuts and Jobs Act federal CTC benefit, whichever is higher.
The ‘Family Fun Pack’ would automatically extend comprehensive health insurance coverage to everyone under the age of 26. Such a program would improve family economic security and reduce the coverage disruptions that children face when their parents become unemployed or disqualified from means-tested health care benefits.
In previous years, legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate to implement a universal single-payer health insurance system in Rhode Island. A report by Gerald Friedman, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, finds that such a system would reduce costs on aggregate and expand coverage.
A state Medicaid-for-kids-style system would guarantee coverage to Rhode Islanders under 26. Through such a program, every child and young adult in the state would have access to a standard level of care regardless of family income.
Families with children face financial burdens that are too often inadequately addressed. With the ‘Family Fun Pack,’ the People’s Policy Project offers an opportunity to reimagine family policy in Rhode Island. By incorporating everything from paid leave to free school lunch to health care under one comprehensive mantle, the ‘Family Fun Pack’ provides state lawmakers, candidates and advocates a compelling way forward.