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Impoverishing Our Future

Childhood Poverty in America

The United States has a child poverty problem.

Although technical definitions of poverty vary (see the Technical Details at the end of this blog post for more about poverty measures), the numbers all point to the same conclusion: too many children are living in families struggling to make ends meet every day.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States has the second-highest rate of children living in poverty among the world’s largest economies: 21.2%. By the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey estimates, 14.4% of children under the age of 18 were living in poverty in the United States in 2019.

Source: OECD

The point here is not to quibble about who provides a better estimate of poverty rates. Even at the lower rate of 14.4%, the number of children in poverty is higher than it should be for a large, advanced economy. While the overall poverty rate, including the poverty rate for children, has fallen since its earliest estimates in 1959 and 1967 — likely due in part to the “War on Poverty” that began in the 1960s — it is difficult to put too much faith in these trends, as the definitions of poverty and data collection methods have changed over time.

Regardless of any technical or definitional issues driving trends and numbers, the fact remains: the persistence of a higher rate of poverty for children under 18, and the fact that one of our most vulnerable demographics is also one of the most impacted by poverty, cries out for more aggressive action.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 1960 to 2020 Annual Social and Economic Supplements (CPS ASEC)

There were nearly 73 million children in the U.S. in 2019, with 10.5 million living in poverty. Not everyone may agree that children living in poverty is a public policy problem, but poverty reflects an intersection of barriers and challenges that can create lifelong setbacks for children. The Urban Institute's Childhood Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences is the first study connecting poverty status at birth, poverty persistence, and adult outcomes. The report found that 49 percent of American children born into poverty will remain in poverty for at least half their childhoods. This state of persistent poverty means that these children are more likely to be poor between ages 25 and 30, fail to complete high school, have a nonmarital birth as a teenager, and have less steady employment than those not poor at birth. Can we afford to write off the futures of more than 10 million children?

If you are not sure if childhood poverty is a significant problem in your community, and/or if you want to think about solutions to childhood poverty, then here are two good resources to get you started:

The Opportunity Atlas enables a user to see how current patterns of affluence and poverty trace back to the neighborhoods where people grew up.

Diversity Data Kids explores how well different neighborhoods provide the conditions children need to grow and thrive, like access to healthy food, good schools, safe housing, playgrounds, and green space.

Get in touch if you want to explore more options for understanding child poverty in your community and think about ways to support all children thriving.

Technical details on poverty rate measures:

The OECD’s estimate of child poverty is based on OECD’s definition of the poverty line: half of household-size-adjusted median income. It, therefore, provides an estimate that is higher than the poverty rate for children reported in the U.S. The Census Bureau’s defined poverty rate is also determined by family size but is focused on “money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or noncash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps)”. Problems with the official measure of poverty led to the creation of the Supplemental Poverty Measure which adds non-cash benefits and subtracts necessary expenses.


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