If this country genuinely cared about protecting the lives of children, Barb Taylor would be out of a job and grandmothers like Ollie Reeves would never anguish over how to feed the children in their care.
But it doesn’t.
Instead Taylor and her team at the Kinship Program at Catholic Community Services (KPCCS) field hundreds of calls a week from people raising a relative’s child. All are desperately seeking help with rent, gas, clothing, or putting food on the table.
“Food insecurity has been a growing concern for caregivers, and rising costs have made it even more challenging as the financial assistance we are able to provide is not stretching as far,” said Taylor, a supervisor with KPCCS.
Kinship caregivers are relatives who step in to raise a relative’s child outside of the formal foster care system, when a biological parent faces drug addiction, mental illness or other challenges.
Out of the 43,000 in our state, the majority are grandmothers raising their grandchildren. Those seniors are one of the only things standing in the way of our child welfare system collapsing under the financial strain of having to support tens of thousands of children.
Far outside the two-comma income bracket and relying largely on fixed incomes like Social Security, kinship caregivers struggle at the brink of economic survival as food, clothing and healthcare costs spike due to inflation.
Imagine being 77 years old and tasked with clothing, feeding, entertaining and transporting four children mostly on your own.
That’s what Ollie Reeves calls real life.
“Every time I call a place for assistance, they tell me that they’re broke. There’s some times that I want to tell the state that if you can’t provide us with clothes and food then you need to come get them,” Reeves said sarcastically.
When I originally wrote about her 14 months ago, she was raising two of her grandchildren: Montrey, 15, and Destiny, 10. She’s now added Paradise, 9, and Jasmine, 5, temporarily to her household.
“When you see people in need you have to help them. I think that’s what God wants all of us to do,” Reeves told me after I asked why she’d take on any more children.
Her magnanimity might be boundless. But her economic capacity – and that of her fellow caregivers – has clear limits.
Nearly half of kinship caregivers live in poverty, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
In Washington state, caregivers have an average income between $30,000 and $39,999, according to a Department of Social and Health Services survey. That leaves them skirting desperation when it requires about $22,679 annually to raise a single child in this state, according to a LendingTree study. Think of that as we celebrate Kinship Care Day May 18.
To its credit, our state has incrementally advanced the cause of caregivers. Prior to last year, the primary financial assistance available to kinship caregivers was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). However, the amount received was only about half that of foster parents.
In order to provide more parity for kinship caregivers already raising a relative placed with them by the state, our Legislature passed SB 5151 last year. The bill created a special license making caregivers eligible for the same payments received by fully licensed foster parents.
However, the change will not impact kinship caregivers outside of the formal foster care system. Many of them still fear a system that disproportionately removes children of color from their homes.
For those caregivers, the legislature increased the amount provided under TANF from $363 a month to $417 for the first child, with declining increases for additional children.
But for folks like Reeves, that’s still inadequate.
“Honestly, the extra [$54 a month] doesn’t help me much,” she said.
What has helped has been various good Samaritans from across the state who have voluntarily sent her family checks after reading about her. They’ve helped provide Christmas presents, braces, football camps and school supplies.
As heartwarming as that has been, personal charity will never be enough to keep the tens of thousands of kinship caregivers across our state from drifting into poverty.
What might be enough is a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). Unlike a Universal Basic Income, GBI is targeted to those most in need as a poverty reduction mechanism, without any restrictions or stipulations. Far from progressive fan-fiction, it’s existed in Alaska since 1982 and has been piloted in San Francisco and locally in South King County.
Here, recipients received $1,000 direct payments every month for a year, and reported decreased stress, better health and improved quality of life.
“I don’t think there’s any greater match of a need to an opportunity than with kinship caregivers and basic income, because our economy doesn’t properly value or compensate the benefit we get from them,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who initiated the program.
Will it be expensive? Yes. Will it require new taxes? Yes. Will it likely require direct involvement from the largest foundations in our state? Yes.
This leaves the ultimate question: Will it be worth it?
That all depends. How much value do you place on a child’s life?