Baltimore’s proposal for a “baby bonus” aims to combat child poverty

The proposal is roughly based on a program implemented this year in Flint, Michigan.

BALTIMORE — Young parents in Baltimore could receive a $1,000 “baby bonus” if voters approve a proposal that would help reduce child poverty from birth with a modest one-time cash payment.

The campaign is being run by a group of Baltimore teachers. Organizers recently collected the 10,000 signatures needed to put the issue before voters as a referendum in November. Their campaign relied on extensive canvassing and a cute logo: a flying cartoon stork with a sack of money in its beak.

The proposal is loosely based on a program implemented this year in Flint, Michigan, where women receive $1,500 during pregnancy and $500 per month for the first year after giving birth. Officials said the Flint program was the first of its kind in the United States.

Countries in Europe and Asia have experimented with larger cash payments, but these programs are designed to encourage more people to have more children, not to combat child poverty. Italy, which has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, pays baby bonus checks and other benefits aimed at population growth.

Organizers of the Baltimore campaign say major system changes are needed nationally to lift families out of poverty, but a modest financial grant for young parents could be an important first step.

“If we’re going to spend a limited amount, where are we going to get the most bang for our buck? The research says at birth,” said Nate Golden, a high school math teacher who co-founded the Maryland Child Alliance, which is advocating for the ballot initiative. “This could literally have a lifelong impact on a child.”

Golden said he also hopes the program will demonstrate to elected officials in Baltimore and elsewhere that there is a real interest among voters in implementing policies that help disadvantaged children succeed.

The problem is particularly pressing in Baltimore, where an estimated 31% of school-age children are in poverty, according to census data. Nationally, child poverty fell during the pandemic thanks to government assistance programs, but has since risen again, to about 12% in 2022.

It is incredibly difficult for the poor to climb the economic ladder, especially in communities of color. Research shows that most American children born into the lowest income bracket maintain roughly the same socioeconomic status for the rest of their lives.

Golden said he sees similar scenarios in his classroom every school year – with students facing homelessness, food insecurity, gun violence and countless other challenges.

“When you see what they go through outside of school, I still demand their best in the classroom, but that’s just not enough,” he said. “We have to take care of those basic needs before we can get kids to focus on learning.”

If the ballot initiative passes, all new parents in Baltimore will receive a one-time payment of at least $1,000.

It is estimated that 7,000 children are born in Baltimore each year, so the program would cost about $7 million annually, which supporters say is about 0.16 percent of the city’s annual operating budget. The initiative will not result in higher taxes, but if passed, it will be up to the Baltimore City Council to allocate the funds.

Proponents say a blanket approach to distributing the funds ensures no one falls through the cracks. It also means some of the money goes to wealthy parents who don’t need assistance. But Golden says it makes sense to include them so as not to exclude the poorest families.

Given the relatively low payments, the universal approach makes sense because research and development of a qualification system would incur significant costs and could delay implementation of the program, says Christina DePasquale, associate professor of economics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Most importantly, the initiative will raise awareness of child poverty, DePasquale said, and could lead to more comprehensive changes in the future.

“It’s worthwhile in the sense that it makes people think,” she said. “It’s something to build on. Even if you don’t have anything perfect, the less perfect version of it is better than not having it at all.”

No one disputes that $1,000 is a life-changing sum, but it could help cover some of the many costs associated with having a baby, including diapers, formula, strollers, cribs and more. And for young parents living on the fringes of society, that could make a real difference, says Nadya Dutchin, executive director of Baltimore-based ShareBaby, which distributes diapers and other baby items for free.

“I don’t think people really pay enough attention to the material insecurities that contribute to parenting stress,” she said. “If you don’t have enough money to buy diapers to keep your child dry, safe and healthy, you and your baby are going to be stressed.”

She said demand for aid has increased dramatically over the past year due to rising inflation and stagnant wages.

The largest federal program to combat child poverty is the child tax credit, which was temporarily expanded during the pandemic. While it has proven effective, advocates say it excludes some families because of the paperwork and qualification requirements required.

In Maryland, Governor Wes Moore campaigned on a promise to help the state’s youngest and most vulnerable residents. Before taking office as Maryland’s first black governor, he led one of the nation’s largest anti-poverty organizations. Moore signed a law this year that provides grants to community organizations in areas with high levels of child poverty.

Baltimore also launched a two-year pilot program in 2022 that provides guaranteed income assistance of $1,000 per month from federal COVID relief funds to a select group of young parents. A recent report evaluating the ongoing pilot program found that participants experienced greater housing stability and improved mental health in the first year.