May 26, 2021

Child Poverty: Past, Present, and Future

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Children in the U.S. have been more likely to be in poverty than any other age group since 1973. Before this time, those 65 and older experienced far higher rates of poverty than they do now. Today Americans aged 65 and older are the least likely to live below the poverty line, although their rates were similar to 18-64-year-olds in 2019 (the most recent year for which data are available).

Poverty rates by age

Source: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/2020/demo/p60-270/Figure11.pdf

Pre-pandemic numbers pointed to some positive news: child poverty rates were at a 50-year low at 14.4 percent, as the graph above details. But this means that more than 1 in 7 children lived below the poverty line, a line which many child advocates, such as the Center for Children in Poverty (CCP), argue is artificially low. (See the CCP’s description of where the federal poverty threshold came from and suggestions to create a more realistic measure.)

For instance, in 2019, a single parent with one child would need to have earned less than $17,622 to fall below that line. That number increases based on the number of people in the household, but it does not take into account regional differences in the cost of living for the contiguous United States (Alaska and Hawaii have slightly higher thresholds).

CCP has an online calculator to estimate actual costs of living for families based on their specific county. While the data for my county is now 10 years old, it would require a single parent with a 6-year-old child (which I selected because the child would be school-aged and require less money for childcare costs) to have an income of approximately $44,000, or earn at least $21/hour to get by. This is about two and a half times the federal poverty level; an indicator that the federal poverty level likely leaves out millions of people with children struggling to pay for basic necessities.

Even the artificially low 14.4 percent means approximately 10,466,000 children in the U.S. live in poverty. If we use the CPP’s measure of double the poverty threshold as an indicator of meeting basic needs, then approximately 39 percent of the nation’s children, or more than 28 million, would fall below this threshold.

Poverty reflects and reproduces other aspects of inequality, particularly concerning race and ethnicity. While 8.3 percent of children classified as white, non-Hispanic lived below the poverty line in 2019, 11.2 percent of Asian Pacific Islander, 30.2 percent of Black, and 20.9 percent of Hispanic children were in poverty. (Note that the federal government uses the term “Hispanic” and considers this classification an ethnicity, rather than a race. For an explanation, see the description here.)

The Children’s Defense Fund notes that:

Almost half of these children lived in extreme poverty at less than half the poverty level. Nearly 3 in 4 poor children (71%) were children of color. The youngest children were most likely to be poor, with nearly 1 in 6 children under 5 living in poverty during the years of rapid brain development.

I teach a class called Sociology of Childhood, and one of the biggest surprises for students is that so many children in the U.S. live in poverty. They typically also wonder why child poverty rarely seems to get attention from lawmakers or come up in the news as a topic of public discussion.

The pandemic has raised awareness about the precarity many low-income families face; the number of children in poverty has likely risen over the past year, particularly as unemployment rose and additional monthly CARES act payments ended. As schools shut down, those in low-income households also faced heightened educational inequality. Sometimes it takes a crisis to draw attention to problems that have existed all along.

The Biden administration has proposed many new initiatives in what it is calling The American Families Plan, part of which would include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), universal pre-school, childcare, and expanding tax credits for families with children. The Brookings Institution and other policy analysts have suggested that this plan could cut child poverty in half. (See Nonprofit Quarterly’s detailed analysis of the proposed bill here.) It remains to be seen if the bill as proposed will be passed and implemented; antipoverty policies often hit a buzzsaw in Congress, particularly if the beneficiaries are painted as undeserving. This is a harder case to make when children are the focus, however.

Why do you think there has been relatively little attempt for the federal government to address child poverty in the last several decades (with some notable exceptions regarding children’s health insurance)? What policy suggestions do you have to reduce child poverty?

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