Mckenzie Jones (Vanderbilt University Office of Federal Relations)

The Challenges to Changing Public Policy

Interning at Vanderbilt’s Office of Federal Relations has allowed me to learn more about public policy and the challenges political organizations face when advocating for certain legislation. After attending First Focus’s 2016 Children’s Budget Summit and a briefing entitled “Building on the Child Tax Credit to Help All Children Thrive” hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation, I learned that even legislation aimed at fighting child poverty (something I’m sure everyone would agree is a good thing) can be mired by political controversy.

At the summit, Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist and CNN correspondent labeled the child poverty rate in America a “nightmare” and blamed common stereotypes many Americans hold regarding individuals in poverty for the lack of public support for social programs (i.e. SNAP, TANF, and the Child Tax Credit). Blow noted that because many Americans often view individuals in poverty as unmotivated and unintelligent, they oppose social programs in order to punish these individuals. Blow then ominously warned that efforts to punish parents inadvertently inhibit our nation from protecting its most valuable investment: its children. Blow’s words became all the more relevant when I attended the Child Tax Credit briefing the next day. Several panelists raised alarm concerning the risks children who grow up in poverty face: increased high school drop-out rates, increased incarceration rates, and greater likelihoods of becoming adults who live in poverty. After panelists advocated for eliminating the minimum wage earnings requirement in order to make the CTC more accessible to low and moderate income families with children, a member of the audience asked if panelists worried that by making the CTC more accessible they would breed a “victim culture” or sense among low-income parents that they are incapable of ever becoming financially independent.

Panelists eagerly replied, making the point that the majority of low income families want to be financially independent and thinking like his is holding our nation back. It ultimately surprised me that someone could mean well, but still hold implicit stereotypes about low-income families. While his question, which I’m sure was intended to emphasize the importance of widely celebrated American values like a strong work ethic and self-reliance, it ultimately revealed his assumption that once individuals living in poverty receive government assistance they will no longer feel the need to continue working towards financial independence. While I may simply be too young and optimistic, I ultimately believe that every parent wants to become financially-independent in order to ensure greater stability and success for their children, and that stereotypes – one size fits all labels – rarely have much accuracy. The discussion made me realize that often changing public policy is only half the battle; it seems one must change public sentiment first.

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