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Getting Ahead: Child Poverty Rates Are Falling

Posted Sep 29, 2022 9:25 AM
By Patricia Jones, Alliance Community Task Force: Creating Opportunity

Earlier this month the New York Times ran two articles about the significant drop in child poverty rates in the United States since 1993. What great news!

The first, appearing September 12, 2022, Expanded Safety Net Drives Sharp Drop in Child Poverty by Jason DeParle and Maddie McGarvey, says that between 1993 and 2019, child poverty fell by 59%.

The statistics were based on years of research presented by Dana Thomson and Renee Ryberg for the Early Childhood Data Collaborative. Their report says, “The past quarter century witnessed an unprecedented decline in child poverty rates. In 1993, the initial year of this decline, more than one in four children in the United States lived in families whose economic resources—including household income and government benefits—were below the federal government’s poverty threshold. Twenty-six years later, roughly one in 10 children lived in families whose economic resources were below the threshold. This is an astounding decline in the child poverty rate, which has seen child poverty reduced by more than half.”

The researchers analyzed different government programs, called the social safety net, to determine which had made a significant difference. In 1993, the social safety net cut poverty by 9 percent compared to what it would have been without the safety net. In great contrast, in 2019, the social safety net cut child poverty by 44 percent. Over that time, the number of children protected from poverty by the social safety net more than tripled, from 2.0 million children in 1993 to 6.5 million children in 2019.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), housing subsidies, Social Security, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) contributed the most to protecting children from poverty.

Much of the credit for the decrease in childhood poverty goes to the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, officially called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The purposes of the program were to assist needy families, fight welfare dependency by promoting work and marriage, reduce nonmarital births, and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Conservatives wanted to emphasize the work and family issues while many liberals were equally concerned with ensuring benefits and adequate income for needy families. What Congress developed through compromise worked so much better than either side could have imagined.

The labor force participation rate increased, especially for single mothers. Teen birth rates dropped dramatically. However, the poverty rate is still very high for children whose parents are not stably employed. These parents may not have the skills needed for available jobs, they

might have health or disability issues, they may not be able to find child care or transportation, or they may face discrimination.

Why is this reduction in child poverty so important? Lack of nutritious food, clothing, safe and stable housing, health care, and education—as well as the chronic stress that this lack of resources creates—can have significant consequences for children’s health, academic achievement, social-emotional functioning, and long-term well-being and economic success. When we promote economic security for families, we lower crime rates and health care costs, improving society as a whole.