By James Lytle
The Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy is a leading New York State policy analysis and advocacy organization working to shape policies to improve health, welfare, and human services for all New Yorkers, especially those who are disenfranchised. Kate Breslin is the President & CEO of the Schuyler Center. Under Kate’s leadership, the Schuyler Center is building upon its long history as a strong, independent voice and coalition-builder that holds government accountable and helps shape public debates around social policies that affect New Yorkers. Kate plays a leadership role in statewide coalitions focused on health and was appointed by Governor Cuomo to the Behavioral Health Services Advisory Council and serves as vice-chair of the First 1,000 Days on Medicaid workgroup. Dorothy (Dede) Hill is the Director of Policy at the Schuyler Center. In this role, Dede coordinates the Schuyler Center’s policy team and conducts policy analysis and advocacy in the area of economic security as well as overseeing child welfare and health policy.
James Lytle: Tell me a little bit about the Schuyler Center and its mission. How does this fit into the history and focus of it?
Kate Breslin: Well, I’ll start by noting that in New York State there are over 6,000 registered lobbyists. And most of them are not advocating for structural and systemic change that benefits low-income children and families. We are, and we work collaboratively with anybody who we can, but the reality is there are a lot of entities lobbying New York State government for self-interest. That's just the way it works. We bring a voice that looks at the issues with regard to their impact on disenfranchised children and families. Our organization was founded in 1872. We're about to celebrate our 150th anniversary of shaping public policy for people in need and we have always tried to bring the voice of the many communities across New York State, inclusive of New York City, but all parts of the state as well, bringing the voice of individuals and organizations from all those places to policy making.
Lytle: What is the child poverty initiative that the Schuyler Center is advancing in New York State? How would it work?
Breslin: The Child Poverty Reduction Act (S.2755 / A.1160) is a bill presently in both Houses of our legislature that would commit our legislators and governor to cutting child poverty in half in the next 10 years. That's the crux of it, the big, beautiful vision. It would create an advisory body that would include several members who have lived experience with poverty, and the advisory body would be responsible for making recommendations about identifying evidence-based approaches to addressing child poverty. The bill would require our State's Division of the Budget to assess policy and budget proposals and decisions with regard to their impact on child poverty, inclusive of racial equity, because we know there's gross racial inequity within poverty. So that's the core objective: set a goal of cutting child poverty in half, generate a group of people to make concrete recommendations to achieve that goal, and measure our progress.
Lytle: What is the extent of child poverty in New York State currently?
Dede Hill: I’ll start by talking about prior to the pandemic, because things have changed since March 2020. We entered the pandemic with a child poverty rate of about 18%, or 712,000 children, with that percentage approaching 28% for Black children and 25% for Latino children. Compared to the rest of the nation, New York has not measured well on child poverty for years; prior to the pandemic, children in New York were more likely to live in poverty than in 32 other states. It always gives me pause when I say that because New York is a wealthy state; New York has a robust economy, and yet we have allowed child poverty to persist at these very high rates for many, many years.
Since the pandemic, while the numbers are still emerging, we know that between March and July 2020, more than 300,000 New York children were pushed into poverty or near poverty. “Near poverty” is around 200% of poverty and is the better measure for poverty, because families at that income level are still one missed paycheck or one illness away from things unraveling in their economic life. We have every reason to expect that New York’s child poverty rate is much higher now.
Lytle: What is 200% of the federal poverty level?
Breslin: It’s around $50,000 for a family of four.
Lytle: And 100% of the federal poverty level is half that, I assume?
Breslin: Yes, just over $25,000 for a family of four. And one additional point: young children are even more likely to live in poverty than our older children, when families are just getting started, and it's especially concerning. When young children are living in poverty and facing the stresses associated with that -- food insecurity, housing instability -- those impacts can have lasting effects, particularly on young children, as their brains are just developing, and can have lifelong and significant negative effects.
Lytle: What are some of those effects, both in terms of the impact on children and impact on society at large?
Breslin: I want to make sure we're clear, because we are talking about effects and impacts not necessarily causes. The impacts can be very significant, and cumulative. A child whose family is experiencing poverty may also be experiencing food and housing insecurity and other challenges and those effects can be cumulative: they can affect a child's capacity for succeeding in school, which then can have lasting effects on the ability to earn income, as the evidence is really showing. The impacts of adverse childhood experiences can have lifelong impacts on physical health such as heart disease and on other kinds of conditions, so the more we can do earlier on, the better we can prepare kids for a lifetime of strong learning and earning and good health, the more money we’ll save in the end as a society.
Lytle: You've chosen a unique way to address the problem. Instead of advocating for some specific interventions to address child poverty, you’ve chosen to set this goal and develop a process to meet it. What made you go down this path?
Breslin: Well, we do advocate for specific solutions. Every year we are advocating for a strengthened child tax credit, strengthened earned income tax credits, better access to affordable and high-quality child care for families and, of course, health insurance coverage, which is one area where New York has done comparatively well -- making coverage good and affordable for low-income families. And yet, every year, we find that while we see maybe one policy that benefits low-income children and families on one part of the ledger, we see three policies that take us backwards. We know that our policymakers care about this, yet we often hear them touting the one policy that took us forward, either not seeing or ignoring or forgetting about the three that took us backward and we have not moved the needle over time.
I liken it to what we've started to do with regard to climate, and that is to say to ourselves, this is a big issue, there are many different policies and decisions that affect the big picture. When it comes to child poverty, it's tax policy, it's child care, it's even public infrastructure. Yet, we haven't measured the impacts of those decisions in a really thoughtful and cumulative way. So, while we will continue to advocate for these individual solutions, this gives us this exciting real opportunity to ask: what's our long-term vision and what are the multitude of opportunities we have to achieve it? To aid in this effort, the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine has a Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty that came out recently, and that identifies evidence-based interventions and models out how those could work at the national level.
Lytle: What are the attributes of champions in the legislature that you might be looking for to lead this effort to cut child poverty in half in New York in 10 years?
Breslin: I like thinking about this because, while we think a lot about the “what” you're trying to move, you also have to think about the “how.” We did think a lot about who might be good champions on this and, of course, first we thought about people who we had worked within the legislature, who are passionate about issues that are related to child poverty. We approached a New York State Senator who's from Queens, Senator Jessica Ramos, who is passionate about issues related to working families. She chairs the Labor Committee and she's been incredibly engaged, especially during the pandemic, with regard to the great needs in her community in Queens. She enthusiastically joined our effort. But at the same time we wanted to make sure that we didn't misrepresent this as an issue that only applies to New York City. We felt as though it was very important to identify another sponsor who was not from New York City. The other sponsor, from the Assembly, is from Rochester which, as we mentioned, has an extremely high child poverty rate, one of the worst of the nation. Assembly member Harry Bronson is from the Rochester area and is also passionately supportive of the issue. It is also important that you work with offices where the staff is organized, wants to get the work done, and whose first priority is getting the win for the right reasons, with not a lot of ego.
Lytle: Is this primarily a New York City problem?
Hill: No, it is not and I’m so glad you asked that question because this is something that we elevate a lot, because all too often that is the perception. In fact, the problem of child poverty cuts across the state. It’s a real problem in many of our upstate cities. In fact, Rochester has been ranked number three in the nation for its child poverty rate. Child poverty has, for years, exceeded 50% in Rochester and we have extraordinarily high rates of poverty in Syracuse, Buffalo, and many of our smaller cities like Albany really struggle with child poverty. And of course, we have a lot of rural communities that have experienced the flight of industry and that have been struggling since the 1970s, many of them. So this is a whole state problem, it's not just a New York City problem.
Lytle: In addition to the Schuyler Center, who else has been engaged in this?
Breslin: We have a fantastic group of other nonprofit organizations; we were very thoughtful as we started building that group. And among those are multi-issue child advocacy organizations that are like us -- nonpartisan, independent, and not service providing, that have a multi-faceted approach and perspective. Some of them are statewide, some are local or regional and we also have had strong, early support from the American Academy of Pediatrics and that's been very energizing for us and for the pediatricians because pediatricians across New York State see the impacts of child and family poverty. They see it in their exam rooms, they see the impacts when they try and make referrals and they recognize that they’re not going to be able to solve it in the important visits that they have with kids and that we need bigger solutions. So, we have fantastic engagement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and several other child advocacy organizations.
Lytle: What is the current status of the proposal?
Hill: The bill has been introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly and we have more than ten Senate sponsors and a really diverse group from across the state and, in the Assembly, we've exceeded fifteen co-sponsors and are picking up steam, again, from a really diverse group. We've got really good momentum.
Lytle: Do you know how Governor Cuomo's office views this proposal at this point?
Breslin: We met with representatives from the governor's office when the bill first came out, late 2020, and they seemed interested. They certainly didn't dismiss it out of hand. We felt as though they understood what the bill was getting at, but we have yet to see any formal response. During the daily COVID-19 pandemic briefings during the summer, the Governor spoke about the scourge of child poverty and how important it was to address it so we're hopeful that he would be supportive.
Lytle: What do you see as some of the challenges in getting this through the Legislature this year?
Breslin: I want to start with what I think are some of the positives including that we think this is a bipartisan or nonpartisan issue. We've already been approached by people on both sides of the aisle about it. I think one of the problems that we're trying to address is that often our policymakers think of budget decisions in a one-year cycle: New York budgets are on a one-year cycle and our policymakers sometimes have a hard time looking beyond that one year. In this case, that’s both a challenge and an opportunity because I think our experience with our legislators is that they would like to be looking long term and thinking long term yet in the moment of budget making, they're required to find some balance in the three months that they’re given to negotiate the budget. So, we're optimistic that this gives them an opportunity to think long term. The reality is, once this bill passes, we'll be working with policymakers to identify concrete, implementable interventions that will cost money. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it: you can't address child poverty without money.
Hill: I think one of the challenges that we're going to face this year is also one of the very reasons that it really needs to happen this year. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we are facing extraordinary budget challenges. We've been looking at what happened with child poverty after the Great Recession, which is the last time that the state has really struggled with a fiscal challenge. What we saw was that child poverty surged, particularly in communities of color, and that child poverty did not come down quickly thereafter. It was not at the top of the list, not top of mind as the state worked its way out of the Great Recession. It took, in fact, until just before the pandemic hit, after more than a decade, to see some real improvements in the state’s child poverty rates. So, we know from that experience that, if the state does not commit to act in a very determined way to address child poverty that that we're going to be carrying the impacts of the pandemic with us for the next decade.
Breslin: It can’t be an afterthought. What we often hear is “we'll get to that after whatever the other thing is.” We're working hard to make it not an afterthought, but a part of that rebuilding.
Lytle: The pandemic has not only affected child poverty and states’ fiscal resources, but it's also affected the way in which you go about the business of trying to advocate in the legislature. How are you handling the difficulty that the pandemic has imposed on advocacy?
Hill: It is not without its challenges. However, I’d like to talk first about the positives, because there really have been some, at least after we've gained our sea legs, particularly with Zoom and other technology. Everything has shifted -- all remote meetings with lawmakers, remote statewide coalition meetings, and remote conferences. But with a state as large and diverse as New York, this has meant we have been able to bring to meetings with lawmakers folks who live in Rochester and Buffalo and Queens and who have full time jobs, and would otherwise have had a very hard time taking time off to meet with lawmakers and travel long distances. We're getting folks to the table. Senator Ramos and Assembly member Bronson had a wonderful press conference in December 2020, and we wanted to hear not just from the lawmakers, but also from New Yorkers who have experienced poverty and would be directly impacted by these efforts. We were able to do that. We do a lot of work in the area of child care, which also has profound impacts on child poverty, and we have been able to host virtual rallies with 600 people from around New York State, including child care providers, parents who really can't get away these days, and they're all there and they can raise their voices. It's been challenging but we're hopeful that some of these more democratic aspects of remote life will persist after things go back to normal, if they go back to normal.
Breslin: We're trying to figure out how we can be intentional about making sure that we identify the things that help us be, as Dede said, more democratic. And, at the same time, what we don't get anymore, is that ability to have informal casual conversations that you have when you're actually physically walking around the State Capitol and that is hard; we miss that.
Lytle: From recent events, it looks like you’re going to be getting some help from the federal government.
Breslin: The American Rescue Plan, passed in March 2021, is arguably the most consequential investment in the nation’s children in a generation. It will significantly reduce child poverty across the nation, and the need for that relief is extraordinary. And it is a combination of several policies that, in sum, will help reduce child poverty. One policy contained in the plan that will move the needle decisively on child poverty is the bill’s dramatic expansion of the child tax credit: an increase of the maximum credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for young children and $3,000 for older children; making the credit fully refundable, so children in the lowest income families can receive the maximum credit; and removing the lower income threshold, so families with little or no income will qualify. The American Rescue Act includes transformational reforms, yet it will not eliminate child poverty, it leaves out immigrant children without a Social Security Number, and many of the reforms are in place for just one year.
New York still needs to commit to addressing child poverty. We're thrilled to see things happening at the national level but that won't make us let up at the state level.
Lytle: Thank you both so much for your time today and your work.
About the Author:
James Lytle is Senior Counsel in the Albany and Boston offices of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, a national law and consulting firm. He is also currently a Senior Fellow with the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and an adjunct professor at New York University Law School.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.