Child Watch® Column:
The Piercing Cry of Child Poverty in Economically Rich but Spiritually Poor America

Release Date: September 25, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

“Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.” –Pope Francis

“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”–President Nelson Mandela

Pope Francis speaks out faithfully and forcefully against poverty and has been called “the pope of the poor.” But on his first visit to the United States there was demoralizing news about poverty, especially child poverty, in our nation—the world’s largest economy.

Despite six years of economic recovery, children remain the poorest group in America. Children are poor if they live in a family of four with an annual income below $24,418—$2,035 a month, $470 a week, $67 a day. Extreme poverty is income less than half this. New Census Bureau data reveal that nearly one-third of the 46.7 million poor people in the United States in 2014 were children. Of the more than 15.5 million poor children, 70 percent were children of color who already constitute the majority of our nation’s youngest children and will be the majority of all our children by 2020. They continue to be disproportionately poor: 37 percent of Black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children are poor compared to 12 percent of White, non-Hispanic children. This is morally scandalous and economically costly. Every year we let millions of children remain poor costs our nation over $500 billion as a result of lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.

The Black child poverty rate increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2014 while rates for children of other races and ethnicities declined slightly. The Black extreme child poverty rate increased 13 percent with nearly 1 in 5 Black children living in extreme poverty. Although the Hispanic child poverty rate fell slightly, Hispanic children remain our largest number of poor children.

Shamefully the youngest and most vulnerable children are our poorest during their years of greatest brain development. Nearly 1 in 4 children under five is poor and almost half live in extreme poverty. More than 40 percent of Black children under five are poor and nearly 25 percent of young Black children are extremely poor. 

Children’s chances of being poor depend partly on the lottery of geography which is why a national safety net for all our children to escape poverty is essential. God did not make 50 different classes of children and Mississippi’s children are as precious as Massachusetts’ children and all of their basic survival needs, health care and nutrition and housing, should be provided. New state data show child poverty rates in 2014 remained at record high levels across 40 states, with only 10 states showing significant declines between 2013 and 2014. In 22 states, 40 percent or more Black children were poor. In 32 states, more than 30 percent of Hispanic children were poor. And in 24 states, more than 30 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children were poor. Only Hawaii had a Black child poverty rate below 20 percent while only two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, had White, non-Hispanic child poverty rates over 20 percent.

The rates are staggering, especially when we know there are steps Congress could take right now to end child poverty and save taxpayer money now and in the future. In CDF’s recent Ending Child Poverty Now report based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, we proposed nine policy changes which would immediately reduce child poverty 60 percent and Black child poverty 72 percent and lift the floor of decency for 97 percent of all poor children by ensuring parents the resources to support and nurture their children: jobs with livable wages, affordable high-quality child care, supports for working families like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and safety nets for basic needs like nutrition, housing assistance and child support.

Yet Congress is perilously close again to making the wrong choices that would make many more children and families poor by leaving in place draconian budget caps which will cause more deep cuts in many of the very safety net supports evidence proves help poor children and families escape poverty. Pope Francis said earlier this year, “Those who have the task of governing are responsible for children . . . When it comes to children, in every case, there should be no utterance of ‘After all, we are not a charity,’ or ‘we’re sorry but we can’t do anything.’ These words do not count when it comes to children.”

Congress must make permanent improvements in pro-work tax credits (both the EITC and the CTC), increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefit, and expand housing subsidies and quality child care investments for children when parents work. To complement gains in these areas and to reduce child poverty long term, we must ensure all children comprehensive affordable health care, high-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities to get ready for school and a level education playing field to help all children achieve and succeed in life. It is a great national, economic and military security threat that a majority of all children in America cannot read or compute at grade level and that nearly three-fourths of our Black and Latino children cannot.

New Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) data underscore the continuing effectiveness of these and other key programs in lifting children and families out of poverty. The SPM counts income and expenses not covered in the official poverty measure. Data show key safety net programs lifted millions of people including children above the SPM poverty line between 2013 and 2014. These supports all reduced child poverty: SNAP (4.7 million people), rent subsidies (2.8 million people), and the Earned Income Tax Credit and the low-income portion of the Child Tax Credit (roughly 10 million people including more than 5 million children). There also is strong evidence these measures will provide long-term benefits for children. 

We know how to reduce child poverty but keep refusing to do it. How can our Congressional leaders even discuss spending as much as $400 billion to extend tax cuts for corporations and businesses while denying more than 15.5 million poor children—70 percent non-White—the opportunity to improve their odds of succeeding in school and in life? If we scrapped the F-35 fighter jet program, which is still not producing fully functional planes, we could use its projected cost to reduce child poverty by 60 percent for 19 years and save billions in lost productivity from school dropout and dependency costs.     

We can and must do more right now as children have only one childhood. As Pope Francis has said in the past, “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.” In his historic address to a joint session of Congress September 24th he emphasized the urgency of acting now: “How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts…A nation can be considered great...when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed.”

By this measure of greatness, the United States has a long way to go.

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Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Acton Ace at: September 6, 2016
Summer break can be stressful for families who are homeless or living at or below the poverty line. Some families believe summer camps won't fit their budget. But it doesn't have to mean spending thousands of dollars for your child to have the "camp experience." The lack of high-quality, engaging summer programming means youth may not have a safe place to go while their parents are at work. Even those engaged in daytime activities may not be receiving the quality educational or recreational programming necessary to keep them healthy and to avoid the “summer slide.” Chris Salamone is the present CEO of the law firm, Chris M. Salamone & Associates. His experience in several organizations such as the Florence Fuller Child Development Centers (FFCDC), has helped him in many ways. At the FFCDC, Chris Salamone has been providing child care programs for children from low-income households. Summer Camp was one of the most notable program of the FFCDC. Also, he has been actively involved in non-profit educational sphere where he shared his views on various subjects relevant to government, law and leadership.

Submitted by Susana at: May 16, 2016
Wow!!You warm my heart. When I taught ESL classes, I always took my students to the closest library to sign up and learn and explore through literacy. My middle daughter is now a children's librarian and her enthusiasm starts many children on the road of learning.

Submitted by Malana at: November 20, 2015
I am currently a Brown student, and had the privilege to see Ms. Edelman speak last year. Though I am proud that my school has taken steps to acknowledge how it has benefitted from slavery, the way it has done so has not always been the best. I wrote this article last year on how problematic Brown's Slavery Memorial is: . There also was just an incident on campus in which a Latinx student visiting from Dartmouth was assaulted by a campus police officer. This has been just one of many racially charged events on campus. Brown is no exemplar of race relations, but hopefully the work done to illuminate Brown's past can help work towards progress now and in the future.

Submitted by Becky at: November 7, 2015
Yes, we need to add optimism into children's lives, rather than harsh punishment (example zero tolerance) - Promise the Children UU

Submitted by KirbyK at: November 6, 2015
Appreciate this column as it relates to today's world.

Submitted by KirbyK at: November 6, 2015
This is an excellent article. I'm saving it. I work with at-risk pre k children in early intervention. I appreciate such wise words.

Submitted by Standup at: November 1, 2015
Very thought provoking and inspiring!

Submitted by Junie at: October 31, 2015
To concur, to a degree, in the basic critique -- that adult thinking, articulation of those thoughts, & both public & private behaviors. can critically and often negatively affect our youth -- does not, in my mind, lead inexorably to retraining all Anglo campus cops ("Resource Officers" or any similar euphuism) to practice Boogaloo-down-Broadway as the paradigm of conflict resolution. First of all, I'd bet the angry young student's peers deem the behavior quite an outlier tactic that, demonstrated in the presence of a male counterpart youth would have left the cop at center stage performing Terpsichore amidst a pile of adolescent broken bones. This was truly a Jimmy Fallon moment for BlackLivesMatter options for reformed white folks. But hardly the wave of the future. I'm recalling the daunting (yet, hard-core realistic) admonition of the CDF blog prescription last summer re: a parent's goal for his/her son in any encounter with police (get home safely -- i.e,, SURVIVE) and how to achieve it (i.e., do "the fugitive slave dance": be effusively polite, answer monosyllabically and pray fervently ya don't git tazed or clubbed!!). I half-way hoped for a modicum of "these are my Constitutional rights" hutzpah, but resigned myself to accept the reality that even the heroic Marian Wright Edelman had done what the rest of us are increasingly resigned to do -- KEEP THE CHILD ALIVE, at all costs. If necessary, eat a mound of crow. At day's end, the abject fear 23 year-old white cops will prevail. Get over it. I thrive on the CDF blog and am nurtured weekly by Marian Wright Edelman. But, Dancing Dora, white cop with a respectable degree of "natural rhythm" is not my salvific moment for our national conversation about race!! Blessings. Vance Martin Pasadena, CA

Submitted by 4thekids at: October 31, 2015
I am alarmed that a known children's advocacy organization would sensationalize a minor disrespectful situation with a kids, which goes on endlessly each day in our schools, all to promote your agenda! Lets fight violence beginning with respect for officials. If you do not like your local officials then vote in your local races!

Submitted by Loraine at: October 31, 2015
Thank you for this column. As a social worker and advocate of the work behind Adverse Childhood Experiences I second everything you have said. Adults are supposed to model behaviors for children and youth not beat them into submission.

Submitted by Shell at: October 31, 2015

Submitted by GMGoBlue at: October 30, 2015
We, as faith leaders, fail our faith as we abandone our marriages because there are problems. What do we teach our children when we are ordained members ignore church but throw out our commitment to marriage and family when there is an issue! We have failed as elders, ministers, deacons or other ordained people when we throw out our vows of "for better or worse" and proceed with divorce when things are bad. Faith commitments our deeper than that & we fail our faith, our God and our family when we get divorced easily and show our children that the values we profess are at best illusionary and at worst meaningless! Easy divorce shows our children that vows and commitment are not what we profess them to mean!

Submitted by Ellen at: October 24, 2015

Submitted by Genie at: October 12, 2015
Mrs. Edelman's column is always inspiring. Young people like Elijah inspire not only other teenagers, but young and even older adults. I am in my eighth decade and I am inspired by his attitude and will to persevere against life's hard knocks.

Submitted by Anonymous at: October 3, 2015
Very relevant information that needs tactile to be taken by persons who truly believe that children are important and deserve a safe and healthy start.

Submitted by Leslie at: October 3, 2015
Some Governors have still not expanded Medicaid, which would be a great help to many who still lack Health Insurance Coverage. Who should we reach out to in order to encourage that to happen?