An Urgent and Preventable Crisis
1 in 6
CHILDREN IN AMERICA LIVE IN POVERTY—
MAKING THEM THE POOREST AGE GROUP
IN THE COUNTRY
It’s nearly 6:30 a.m. and the sky is just waking up in Queens, N.Y. So too is fourth-grader Darnell, who sees the light from the rising sun and knows something is wrong.1 He’s already late. The school bus has left, and now his family must make a 90-minute trek from the shelter where they are staying to Public School 76. Darnell’s days are long and they take a lot of patience—to get to school, to get to the next meal, to get to his favorite part of the day, football practice, to turn around and get back to the shelter. Despite 10 years of economic recovery and continued declines in child poverty for all racial and ethnic groups, too many children like Darnell are being told to be patient, to wait to feel the effects of an improving economy.
Children remain the poorest age group in America. Nearly 1 in 6 lived in poverty in 2018—nearly 11.9 million children (see Table 2). The child poverty rate (16 percent) is nearly one-and-a-half times higher than that for adults ages 18-64 (11 percent) and two times higher than that for adults 65 and older (10 percent). Children are considered poor if they live in a family with an annual income below the Federal Poverty Line of $25,701 for a family of four, which amounts to less than $2,142 a month, $494 a week or $70 a day (see Table 3).
Child poverty is related to both age and race/ethnicity. The youngest children are the poorest and nearly 73 percent of poor children in America are children of color.
- More than 1 in 6 children under 6 were poor and almost half of them lived in extreme poverty (see Table 4).
- Nearly 1 in 3 Black (30.1 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Native children (29.1 percent) and nearly 1 in 4 Hispanic children (23.7 percent) were poor compared with 1 in 11 white children (8.9 percent) (see Tables 5-6).
Children’s chances of being poor are also partly a result of the lottery of geography.
- More than 25 percent of Black children were poor in 35 states and the District of Columbia in 2018; Hispanic children, in 29 states; and American Indian/Native Alaska children, in 20 states.
- Only two states had white child poverty rates that were 20 percent or higher (see Table 6).
Why, in the world’s largest economy, are children like Darnell still languishing in poverty? Every year children spend in poverty is dangerous and expensive. The toxic stress of early poverty stunts children’s development, creating opportunity gaps that can last a lifetime and harm the nation’s economy.
- Poor children are more likely to have poor academic achievement, drop out of high school and later become unemployed, experience economic hardship and be involved in the criminal justice system. Children who experience poverty are also more likely to be poor at age 30 than children who never experience poverty.2
- Lost productivity, worsened health and increased crime stemming from child poverty cost the nation about $700 billion dollars a year, or about 3.5 percent of GDP.3
Child poverty is not a crisis without a solution. A long trail of evidence shows government assistance programs help curb the negative effects poverty has on children, families and the economy.
- In 2018, 4.7 million children were lifted out of poverty with the help of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other refundable tax credits; 1.4 million with the help of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); nearly 1 million with housing subsidies; 800,000 with the National School Lunch Program; 497,000 with the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program; 216,000 with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and general assistance; and 169,000 with the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).4
- Children with access to SNAP and the EITC also fare better in adulthood. Children receiving SNAP are more likely to finish high school and less likely to experience obesity, stunted growth or heart disease as adults. Moreover, children in families benefiting from the EITC have higher scores on reading and math tests and are more likely to go on to college and have higher earnings as adults.
To end child poverty now, children’s basic needs must be met, and parents who are able to work must be able to find jobs that can support a family. Darnell’s mom Sherine is a home health care aide who volunteers at school on her days off. Despite all these contributions professionally and in her children’s lives, her voice breaks when she talks to a New York Times reporter. “I feel like a failed parent,” she says, adding, “I should have been able to provide everything that they need.” But Sherine hasn’t failed—America has. The majority of poor children live with at least one working family member and nearly one-third live with a family member who works full-time, year round.5 We can and must do better.
Immigrant Children are America’s Children: Poverty
Maria is a proud mom of two teens, a son and a daughter. She’s a hard worker who sometimes goes straight from cleaning houses to laying concrete in parking lots. She’s a taxpayer. “I think it’s important, and all my relatives pay their taxes too,” she tells a Vox reporter.6
Maria is an immigrant. All wage earners—regardless of their immigration status—are required to pay federal taxes. And Maria does, every year, just as immigrant workers from all across this nation do, contributing billions of dollars to the U.S. economy.7 However, many restrictions prevent millions of immigrants like Maria from receiving benefits, like life-saving safety net programs or poverty-busting tax credits.
Safety net programs and tax credits lift millions of children out of poverty each year. We can help millions more children by improving those programs now. But to finish the job, this nation must reverse policies that deny credits and other benefits to children and parents in immigrant families.