Child Poverty

Doing What Works to End Child Poverty

Unprecedented. Historic. Unequaled. Astounding. We rarely hear adjectives like these associated with good news about child poverty, but these are a few of the words being used to describe new reports on the decline in child poverty rates in the United States. The Census Bureau has just released data showing in 2021 child poverty in the U.S. fell to the lowest rates ever recorded. This coincided with a report by Child Trends that documented how sharply child poverty in the U.S. fell between 1993 and 2019, even before the plunge recorded during the pandemic. Both pieces of news shared a common denominator the Children’s Defense Fund has emphasized time and time again: child poverty is preventable in our rich nation, and there are policy solutions that work to end it. We must build on those policy solutions, make them permanent, and work even harder to make sure they reach every child.

The Census Bureau reported that child poverty was cut nearly in half between 2020 and 2021 thanks to anti-poverty programs established or expanded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including expansions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). The expanded Child Tax Credit alone lifted nearly 3 million children out of poverty in 2021, including 1 million children under 6.

Many of these same programs that made a historic difference during the pandemic have also been a key part of the longer declines in child poverty rates. Child Trends notes that between 1993 and 2019 the number of children protected by the social safety net, which also includes the Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security, SNAP, and housing subsidies, more than tripled. At the same time, they warned that although the social safety net made an enormous difference for millions of poor children, our nation made the least progress in strengthening this safety net for children with the fewest resources, including children in deep poverty, those in immigrant families, and children without stably employed parents. These are the children who still need help the most, and these findings reaffirm the importance of the expanded anti-poverty programs put in place during the pandemic and the obvious but critical observation that when more children were protected by anti-poverty programs in 2020 and 2021, child poverty dropped even more dramatically.

This last point was reinforced by yet another piece of data released this week. The Children’s Defense Fund and other organizations recently partnered with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) on a national survey of low- to moderate-income parents to see how they have been affected by the expiration of monthly expanded CTC payments. CLASP’s results underscored again that the expanded CTC significantly reduced family hardship and hunger. Not surprisingly, however, the survey also found that as soon as CTC payments ended families faced more difficulties affording bills, groceries, clothing, and other essentials. We’ve made significant progress in reducing child poverty over the last quarter-century, and pandemic-era improvements proved we can immediately reach even more children and cut child poverty even faster. Why wouldn’t we keep doing it?

The decline in child poverty is wonderful news, and the dramatic pandemic-era plunge does not have to be a blip on the graph. We cannot let child poverty rates tick upwards again when every tenth of a point represents thousands of children who deserve a better future. We know what works, and we now know what we can do to keep bending that child poverty rate curve downwards towards zero. Our nation can—and must—continue this progress and expand effective policies to end child poverty now.