Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data confirmed our worst fears about the impact of this deep recession. Nearly four million more Americans fell into poverty in 2009: 44 million or one in seven of us are unable to meet our basic needs. Worst of all, children, our most vulnerable group, experienced the steepest rise in poverty and the largest single-year increase since the 1960s. After dropping twenty-four percent between 1992 and 2000, the number of children in poverty increased more than one-third between 2000 and 2009. An additional 1.4 million children swelled the ranks of poor children to 15.5 million children—more than one in five children. This almost ten percent increase in child poverty over 2008 is shameful, disturbing, and threatening news for millions of our nation’s children—unless our nation addresses their human emergency needs.
Our youngest children are most at risk of being poor, at the very same time that their brains are rapidly developing and attention to their developmental needs is so important. More than five million children under age five are poor, and 2.4 million live in extreme poverty.
Children of color continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty. Black and Hispanic children are about three times as likely to be poor as White non-Hispanic children. In 2009, more than one in three Black children (4 million) and one in three Hispanic children (5.6 million), compared to more than one in ten White non-Hispanic children (4.9 million), lived in poverty. Race still matters a lot.
Almost 60 percent of poor children—9.2 million—lived in single parent families but married couple families were not immune to the recession’s effects. Nearly nine percent more married couple families were poor in 2009 than in 2008. And two-thirds of poor families had one or more family members working.
The Great Recession’s impact on millions of children and families has jeopardized the promise of a productive future for their children and for our nation and demands greater action by our leaders and all of us. Millions of children are and will be negatively impacted unless we have the courage to act decisively, sensibly, and decently to lend a stronger hand.
Congress must help parents get back to work and maintain the extra supports they are currently receiving until they are back on their feet again. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) Emergency Fund has created more than 250,000 short-term jobs for low-income parents. It will end shortly unless Congress extends it for another year. Unemployment benefits, which kept over three million people out of poverty, must be extended before they end in November. Improvements in the Child Tax and Earned Income Tax Credits must be made permanent to help low and middle income families help their children survive and thrive. These investments will make a difference in the lives of millions of children and put us back on a path toward prosperity. This is where our tax dollars must go—not to help the wealthiest two percent of Americans who have seen their fortunes grow enormously while millions of our children and families fell backwards.
Children need our action now. This devastating but expected increase in the number of children living in poverty drives home the fact that we are failing miserably in our moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us. It is fiscally incomprehensible and morally indefensible that our leaders are debating extending an average tax cut of $100,000 a year for individuals earning over a million dollars annually when 15.5 million children are living in families struggling everyday to survive on a fraction of that single tax cut and when one in 50 Americans have no cash income according to a New York Times survey. America can and must turn this economic downturn into an opportunity to step forward and correct the gross imbalance of government subsidization of the wealthiest and most powerful among us by making it a national priority to invest now in the early childhood development, health, education, and well-being of our children. Our nation will not succeed unless we do. Children are the foundation of America’s future and tomorrow is today.