U.S. Child Poverty Is On The Rise

A big new report shows one in four children in America lives in poverty. We ask why and look at solutions.

Children play basketball at a park in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Children play basketball at a park in Baltimore. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The latest numbers out of a big new national survey find almost one in four American children is now living in poverty. In the worst state, New Mexico, it’s 30 percent.

Even in an era of recession, these are deeply troubling numbers. For individual children, they mean deprivation in ways that can shape, limit an entire life. All this in an era when upward mobility has shut down.

For a country, it’s a tough indicator on the future.

This hour, On Point: Facing and fixing child poverty. What would it take?

— Tom Ashbrook


Laura Speer, director of the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (@laurabmore)

Kristin Seefeldt, professor of social work and researcher at the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. She’s the author of “Working After Welfare” and “America’s Poor and the Great Recession.”

Ron Haskins, senior fellow in economic studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. He’s the senior editor of “The Future of Children,” a journal on policy issues that affect children and families, and former senior advisor to President Bush on Welfare Policy. He’s also the author of “Creating an Opportunity Society,” “Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law” and “Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America.”

Interview Highlights

Laura Speer on the prevalence of child poverty:

“23 percent of children are now living in households with incomes below the poverty line, which is about $22,000 for a family of four.”

– Laura Speer

“The child poverty rate increased between 2010 and 2011; 23 percent of children are now living in households with incomes below the poverty line, which is about $22,000 for a family of four — it’s a very low bar. And that represents about 16.4 million children in the country, about 3 million more than there were in 2005. We also know that the percent of children whose parents lack secure employment is higher now pre-recession; one out of three children don’t have a parent in the household who has full-time, year-round work, which is bad news for income, certainly, but it also has implications for the kinds of benefits that are available (like health care benefits especially) from a full-time job … 40 percent of kids in the U.S. in 2011 live in households where housing was simply costing too much. Economists estimate spending more than about 30 percent on income on housing — that’s too much. For four out of 10 kids in the U.S., that’s a reality, which has big impacts on overall household spending.

“One out of three children don’t have a parent in the household who has full-time, year-round work.”

– Laura Speer

There are variations across the country … in general, the states in the South, the southeast and the southwest, tend to have the worst outcomes on these indicators, pretty much across the board … States in the Northeast, specially the New England states, and the upper Midwest tend to have the best rankings … I think it’s a little bit surprising to people when we talk about which states are at the top of our economic well-being rankings. In the top five are North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa … [The energy boom] certainly has something to do with it, but it’s more about employment. The parents tend to have very high employment rates, that cost of living is relatively low, so the housing cost burden (which is one our indicators) is not as high. And another indicator that we have in that domain is our idle teens. Teens have very strong connections to both school and work or work in those states. It has a lot to do with the economy and what’s happened with jobs and job availability in those places, but it also has to do with the cost of living.”

Lifetime impacts of include poverty poor academic achievement, health problems, substance abuse and mental illness. And that’s not all, Laura Speer said:

“It’s especially problematic for children who are in poverty for long periods of time. That’s one of the things the research has shown thus far is that when young people stay in those low-income situations for a long part of their childhood, those effects are even more sticky, so that’s a problem with the current recession for sure.”

Ron Haskins on government benefits and individual responsibility:

“A big part of the problem here … is individuals make lousy decisions and they’re bad for their future.”

– Ron Haskins

“This is a typical situation, that a poverty rate goes up when the economy’s bad … it will start to go down, but it won’t go as low as we would like it to go, that’s for sure. We have a high poverty rate in the United States, higher than most countries. Nonetheless — and we haven’t talked about this — government does a lot. We spend something like $1 trillion between the federal government and the states … on a whole range of programs. Probably government benefits reduce poverty maybe 34 percent, child poverty by maybe 34, 35 percent because of all the benefits, especially among low-income working families. And during recession, the safety net responded so effectively that the poverty rate, if you include government benefits (which are mostly not included in the official poverty rate) … poverty rate did not increase in 2009, full year of recession. So the government already does a lot, and a big part of the problem here, which also has not been mentioned, is individuals make lousy decisions and they’re bad for their future — they drop out of school, they have babies when they’re teenagers, they have babies before they get married. Many people don’t work or work part-time. Some of that’s the economy of course, but there’s also individual decisions involved. There’s a lot individuals can do to escape poverty; it isn’t just the economy burying down on them and causing all this trouble.”

“If you follow those three rules of finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, having babies — in that order — your chances of living in poverty during your adult years are about 2 percent. That’s an actual description of people in the American population. That leaves out of account a lot of factors, of course — individual initiative, family background, having an alcoholic parent — there are just so many things like that, but shouldn’t the message be to people to maximize your chances, be smart, finish school? This is what we tell our kids; we should expect the same thing of other people.”

Kristin Seefeldt on the government safety net and how it falls short:

“We don’t have a lot in place on the cash assistance side. You can use food stamps but you can’t pay your water bill with it.”

– Kristin Seefeldt

“Parts of the safety net did perform particularly well during the recession. Food stamps, for example — food stamp rolls increased, reached a lot of households, mitigated a lot of the food problems … on the other hand, we don’t have a lot in place on the cash assistance side. You can use food stamps but you can’t pay your water bill with it. And we’ve reformed our cash safety net system back in the ’90s when the economy was hot, and in many states, those caseloads — the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program did not respond very well. For many people who are in the low-wage labor market, if they lose their jobs for a whole variety of reasons, they may not qualify for the unemployment insurance program that also has been very important during this recession for many folks who did lose their jobs. We do have parts of the safety net that work well; there are other places where there are still some holes.”

Ron Haskins on the importance of post-secondary education:

“Wages for people who have less than a four-year degree — so even people who complete a high school degree and even people who have some college without a four-year degree — all those groups’ average income has been declining during their prime earning years … You still make more with each additional step of education, but over the last 30 years, their wages have been declining. My point is that our economy is changing so that the jobs that pay $40, 60, 80,000 a year and above are jobs that require education — not always a four-year degree (there are lots of other ways to do it) but the day when a high school graduate could make a good wage and afford a house and so forth, those days are mostly gone. And the future is likely to continue in this direction. Education is really a key. We have to improve education. We have to convince kids to stay in school, to go beyond their high school degree, to get some kind of certification of a professional skill or a four-year college degree.”

Kristin Seefeldt on the reduced funding for education:

“Public school funding has been cut back, and that disproportionately affects kids who are low-income and who may already be in schools that are not doing all that well to begin with.”

– Kristin Seefeldt

“What worries me is that, again, some of the mechanisms … that have traditionally helped people become upwardly mobile — we’ve done a lot of disinvestment in public education. Especially in the last number of years since the Great Recession and its aftermath, and state budgets have been tight and many states have balanced budget requirements. Public school funding has been cut back, and that disproportionately affects kids who are low-income and who may already be in schools that are not doing all that well to begin with. I also talk about prevention. Early childhood investments we know can really make a difference … if you are poor when you are very young, birth to age 3, those negative impacts can last and be much deeper. But yet the response to the president’s call for more early childhood education, more pre-school for kids in this country has been very lukewarm. Yes, education can really matter, but we don’t seem to be putting a whole lot of our efforts behind that.”

Laura Speer on the importance of early childhood programs:

“Making sure that there are high-quality programs available and accessible to those parents who are struggling income-wise is critically important.”

– Laura Speer

“There’s a lot of evidence around the return on investment for early childhood interventions, especially high-quality early childhood programs starting from really birth and especially in those pre-school years, the 3- and 4-year-olds. Not only for the child but there’s also the added benefit of the fact that if you have a 3- or 4-year-old child and you want to work, that child needs to be in childcare. So if your options are putting them in a high-quality childcare program that you can’t afford or putting them in a low-quality program, you’re going to make those choices based on how much money you have in your pocket. Making sure that there are high-quality programs available and accessible to those parents who are struggling income-wise is critically important.”

Kristin Seefeldt on the structural problems and a raising the minimum wage:

“Recessions come and go, right? But we’ve had a recession in the midst of a pretty major structural shift. We are no longer a country where you could get a high school degree, get a job at a manufacturing plant and have a pretty decent middle-class life. There’s a much higher premium now on education, a lot of jobs that pay well require a lot of skills, a lot of investment in education … If we’re going to have these jobs on the low end that pay very little, are we willing then to say, yes, we should support folks who then maybe aren’t going to be able to put food on the table without some form of government assistance or are we going to put pressure on employers and, again, on the government too to do something about raising the minimum wage so that it becomes less of a minimum and more of a living wage?”

Laura Speer on wages, working and childcare:

“Without an increase in wages, there has to be government intervention in order to ensure that children of these [low-income] workers have every opportunity possible in order to succeed.”

– Laura Speer

“If you’d ask most people what it takes to raise a family, a wage at Walmart is not going to do it without any assistance, especially if you have anything that comes up in the medical sense, if you have got to provide childcare for your kids … The numbers don’t just add up … Without an increase in wages, there has to be government intervention in order to ensure that children of these workers have every opportunity possible in order to succeed. If you have got a 2-year-old and you have to go to work everyday, you can’t just leave that child at home. There has to be a childcare provider for them, and I think one of the fallouts that we’ve seen, especially from the state budget issues that have happened over the last several years, has been that there’s been decision to decrease funding for subsidized childcare for low-income people across the country by states who are making choices about how to balance budgets. The fallout on that side is that if you’re lucky enough to find a job during the last five years and you aren’t paid well enough to afford childcare, those subsidized childcare slots are just not there that were there before.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Annie E. Casey Foundation: 2013 KIDS COUNT Data Book: State Trends In Child Well-Being — “The child poverty rate increased to 23 percent in 2011, two years after the recession had ended. Even more disturbing is the fact that the poverty rate for very young children — those under 3 years old — was 26 percent.” (PDF)

The Wall Street Journal: Who Makes Up the ‘Working Poor’ in America? — “Roughly 46 million people in the U.S., or 15% of the population, lived below the official poverty line in 2011 ($11,484 for an individual or $23,021 for a family of four per year). About 10.4 million of them are considered part of the ‘working poor.’ That means they spent at least half the year in the labor force (working or looking for work), but they still fell below the poverty level.”

The New York Times: The Microeconomics Of Poverty Since 2007 — “Government safety net programs were put on steroids by the 2009 stimulus law, erasing incentives for a significant fraction of the unemployed.”

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