The United States has seen an unprecedented decline in childhood poverty since 1993 when more than one in four children lived in households with incomes below the federal Supplemental Poverty Measure threshold. In 2019, that number dropped to just over one in 10 children, or 11.4%, according to a report by the Early Childhood Data Collaborative.
The social safety net, comprising programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, accounts for most of the improvement. About a third of the decline in childhood poverty is attributed to lower unemployment rates, more single mothers in the work force, and state action to increase the minimum wage.
The combination of safety net programs and economic improvements for working parents has benefited children in several ways. Children living in poverty often suffer from a lack of nutritious food, health care, adequate clothing, and stable housing, all of which can lead to preventable health and developmental problems. The longer children live in deprived conditions, the less likely they are to achieve school success, emotional stability, health over their lifetimes, and economic self-sufficiency.
The decline in childhood poverty was spread relatively evenly across population groups, the report's authors found. As a result, existing disparities persist in the well-being of children from minority racial and ethnic groups and in the children of immigrants. Some evidence suggests that the social safety net has done a better job protecting Black and White children from the harms of poverty than it has Hispanic and Asian/Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander children. Children benefited most when the adults in their families had stable employment. Children whose parents are unemployed have a much harder time escaping poverty.
To continue the progress in alleviating childhood poverty, the authors recommend policy initiatives that focus on children's needs rather than on parental characteristics. One example is the 2021 Child Tax Credit program, which is based on a child's citizenship status rather than on that of the parents, thereby making all poor families eligible for monthly per child stipends. They also recommend simplifying application and eligibility requirements for safety net programs so families can more easily access benefits. Also key are measures to ensure stable and viable employment for parents—especially women—through increases in the minimum wage and access to affordable child care. Noting that a dramatic drop in the teen birth rate over the last two decades has significantly contributed to reductions in childhood poverty, the authors urge continued public investment in teen pregnancy prevention programs as well as measures to ensure access to contraception and abortion services.
Read the full report at www.childtrends.org/publications/lessons-from-a-historic-decline-in-child-poverty.—Gail M. Pfeifer, MA, RN