No child should have to worry where her next meal will come from or whether she will have a place to sleep each night in the wealthiest nation on earth. Yet more than 12.8 million children in America—about 1 in 5—live in poverty and face these harsh realities every day. More than 2 in 3 poor children are children of color and our youngest children are our poorest. We are failing our children and our nation.
When we let millions of children grow up poor without basic necessities like food, housing and health care, we deny them equal opportunities to succeed in life and rob our nation of their future contributions. Poverty decreases a child’s chances of graduating from high school and increases her chances of becoming a poor adult. It makes her more likely to suffer illnesses and get caught in the criminal justice system. Beyond its human costs, child poverty has huge economic costs. Our nation loses about $700 billion a year due to lost productivity and increased health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.
Child poverty is an urgent and preventable crisis. Solutions to child poverty in our nation already exist if we just expand and invest in them. Benefits like nutrition assistance, housing vouchers and tax credits helped lift nearly 7 million children out of poverty in 2017, but millions of children were left behind due to inadequate funding, eligibility restrictions and low wages. We can and must fix these problems to help more children escape poverty now.
In 2015, the Children’s Defense Fund published our groundbreaking report Ending Child Poverty Now which showed, for the first time, how America could immediately lift millions more children out of poverty by simply improving and investing in policies and programs that work. Four years later, we find it unacceptable and unconscionable that our leaders are still debating and our poor children are still waiting. Millions of children have needlessly suffered in poverty because our nation failed to act. How many more years, child lives and taxpayer dollars will we waste before we end child poverty? How many more studies and reports will it take before our leaders acknowledge that we know what to do and can start right now?
This second edition of Ending Child Poverty Now updates our earlier study and issues another call for an immediate reduction in child poverty. It confirms, once again, our nation can act now to end child poverty for a majority of children and raise family incomes for millions more. By investing an additional 1.4 percent of our federal budget into existing programs and policies, we can cut child poverty at least 57 percent, lift 5.5 million children out of poverty and help 95 percent of all poor children.
Recognizing the urgent need to help more poor and near-poor children today, CDF identified nine policy improvements that could be enacted immediately to increase employment, make work pay and meet children’s basic survival needs for food, housing and child support. CDF then commissioned the Urban Institute to estimate the child poverty impacts and costs of these policy improvements. According to the Urban Institute, these combined policy improvements could substantially reduce child poverty as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) which accounts for the impact of government benefits and tax policy on families.
Policy Improvements to Reduce Child Poverty Right Now
Increasing Employment and Making Work Pay More for Adults with Children
- Create transitional jobs for unemployed and underemployed individuals ages 16-64 in families with children.
- Increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00 by 2024.
- Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for lower-income families with children.
- Make the Child Tax Credit (CTC) fully refundable with additional benefits for families with young children.
- Make child care subsidies available to all eligible families below 150 percent of poverty with no co-pays.
- Make the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) refundable with a higher reimbursement rate.
Meeting Children’s Basic Needs
- Determine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits based on USDA’s Low-Cost Food Plan for families with children and increase benefits by 31 percent.
- Make housing vouchers available to all households with children below 150 percent of poverty for whom fair market rent exceeds 50 percent of their income.
- Require child support to be fully passed through to families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF formerly AFDC), fully disregarded for TANF benefits and partially disregarded for SNAP benefits.
Enacted together, these improvements would:
- Cut child poverty at least 57.1 percent, lifting 5.5 million children out of poverty.
- Cut extreme child poverty at least 57.9 percent, lifting 1.3 million children above 50 percent of the poverty line.
- Raise family incomes for 95 percent of all poor children.
- Lift 58.1 percent of poor children under 6 out of poverty.
- Lift 65.4 percent of poor Black children out of poverty.
- Lift 59 percent of poor Hispanic children out of poverty.
- Reduce poverty among single-parent households 59.5 percent.
- Reduce poverty among children in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas 57 percent.
These improvements would cost $52.3 billion—1.4 percent of federal spending and 0.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This is a bargain our nation—which approved nearly $2 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations in 2017—can easily afford. Every dollar invested in reducing child poverty will return at least seven dollars to our economy.
The bottom line is simple: we must eliminate child poverty and can get started immediately. Children only have one childhood and it is right now. We cannot afford to wait another 3, 5, or 10 years to end child poverty—and this report shows we do not have to. We have the knowledge and resources. We must now develop the moral and political will to act.
Who Are Our Poor Children and How Poor Are They?
Children are the poorest age group in America.
- A child is born into poverty every 41 seconds in America.
- Nearly 1 in 3 of those living in poverty are children. Over 12.8 million children were poor in 2017.
- Of these children, nearly 5.9 million lived in extreme poverty below half the poverty line.
- Poverty is defined as an annual income below $25,094 for a family of four—$2,091 a month, $483 a week or $69 a day. Extreme poverty is an income below half that level ($12,547).
The youngest children are the poorest during critical years of brain development.
- Nearly 1 in 5 infants, toddlers and preschoolers are poor.
- More than 1 in 3 American Indian/Alaska Native and Black children under 5 are poor.
- Nearly half of all poor children under 5 live in extreme poverty.
Poverty affects all children, but disproportionately children of color.
- More than 2 in 3 poor children are children of color.
- Nearly 1 in 3 American Indian/Alaska Native children and more than 1 in 4 Black and Hispanic children are poor compared with 1 in 9 White children.
- While American Indian/Alaska Native and Black children have the highest poverty rates, Hispanic children comprise the largest number of poor children followed by White children.
Poverty affects children in rural, suburban and urban communities.
- A majority of poor children live outside of major cities—in suburbs, smaller non-metropolitan cities and rural areas.
- 60 percent of poor children live in small cities, suburbs and rural towns.
The majority of poor children live with at least one working family member.
- 2 in 3 poor children in related families live with an adult who works.
- Nearly 1 in 3 live with a family member who works full-time, year-round.
Note: These figures reflect the number of children living below the official poverty line as calculated by the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) based only on cash income.
U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey. 2018. “2017 Annual Social and Economic Supplement,” Tables POV01, POV03, POV13, POV21, POV40, and 3; U.S. Census Bureau. 2018. “2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates,” Tables B17020H and B17020B.