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Journal Issue: Children and Poverty Volume 7 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1997

Programs That Mitigate the Effects of Poverty on Children
Barbara L. Devaney Marilyn R. Ellwood John M. Love


Poverty can increase children's exposure to a wide array of problems including inferior housing, insufficient food and poor-quality diets, deficient health care, inadequate parenting, and poor-quality child care, and result in delayed physical, cognitive, and socioemotional growth. (See the article by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Greg Duncan in this journal issue.) A wide array of assistance programs and policies aid low-income households with children by providing either cash assistance payments or in-kind benefits to meet specific needs. This article reviews the effectiveness of several in-kind assistance programs in mitigating the impact of poverty on children. In addition, a number of programs, discussed in the article by Robert Plotnick in this journal issue, attempt to reduce the prevalence of poverty through increased earnings, public cash transfers and tax credits, and private cash support from absent parents.

The programs selected for this review comprise only part of a public safety net for children and their families and include large federally funded programs known to have effects on children, either because they are targeted directly to children or because benefits to low-income households with children account for a significant component of program expenditures. In general, the programs selected for review are also those designed to reduce the negative effects of poverty in such fundamental areas as food, shelter, and health care.

The six programs covered in this review are the Food Stamp Program, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the school nutrition programs (breakfast and lunch), Medicaid, Head Start, and housing assistance programs. Of these, WIC, the school nutrition programs, and Head Start are targeted specifically at children, while the Food Stamp, Medicaid, and housing assistance programs are targeted more broadly at low-income households and individuals. For each of these programs, the discussion below provides a brief historical policy overview, reviews the empirical evidence on program coverage and achievement of program goals and objectives, and discusses the indirect effects of program participation. Emphasis is placed on studies with adequate controls for differences in the characteristics of program participants and eligible non-participants. (See Box 1.) In some instances, statistical models that account for potential selection bias provide the evidence concerning program effects. More often, however, the evidence is from more traditional regression models. Fortunately, all of the programs reviewed have been studied extensively over time, with various levels of complexity and different outcomes. Thus, judgments about program effectiveness come from the accumulated evidence produced by these repeated studies.

Table 1 provides an overview of the program characteristics including each program's target population, eligibility guidelines, whether it is an entitlement program or not, the number of persons served, and the annual cost.