The child poverty rate in the U.S. has fallen dramatically over the last quarter century, and an expanded social safety net has played a leading role in the remarkable decline, according to a comprehensive new analysis of trends since 1993.
The decline may come as a surprise to some since it runs counter to the idea that the American safety net is too weak to keep millions of people out of poverty. But the numbers – which come from a joint study by The New York Times and Child Trends, a social science research group focused on children – are very clear.
“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 Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) threshold,” the Child Trends analysis says. “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.”
In raw numbers, there were 19.4 million children in poverty in 1993, accounting for about 28% of all children in the U.S. By 2019, that number had fallen to 8.4 million, or about 11% of all children. (The analysis does not include data from 2020 because of the distorting effects of the large but temporary relief spending amid the Covid-19 pandemic; with that data, the drop in child poverty is even larger.) If rates had held steady instead of declining since the early 1990s, 12 million more children would currently be living in poverty.
The decline has occurred in every state, among every racial group, and in every kind of household, including single-parent families. At the same time, however, key differences remain, especially along racial lines, with Black and Latino children three times as likely to be in poverty as White ones.
Looking at the causes: The analysis found that multiple factors played a role in the decline of child poverty since the early 1990s, including a decrease in unemployment levels, a higher labor force participation rate for single mothers, and increased minimum wages at the state level (though not at the federal level, where the value of the minimum wage fell). The biggest factor, though, has been how government aid works.
“A patchwork of programs shaped by a century of political conflict and compromise, the safety net bears the imprint of both parties and commands the satisfaction of neither,” says the Times’s Jason DeParle, who wrote about the analysis Monday. “Most Republicans want less spending, more local control and more rules requiring beneficiaries to work. Most Democrats want higher benefits for more people, as seen in their unsuccessful push this year to permanently turn the child tax credit, a workers’ subsidy, into a broader income guarantee.”
The safety net for children has been shaped by both impulses. More low-income parents went to work after the reforms enacted during the administration of President Bill Clinton, who promised to “end welfare as we know it.” But more aid has been provided, as well, with the value of income tax credits and nutritional assistance rising sharply.
According to the analysis, safety net programs cut child poverty by 9% in 1993. By 2019, those programs were responsible for a 44% decrease in child poverty – a huge increase in effectiveness. The top programs for reducing child poverty were the earned income tax credit, Social Security, food stamps, housing assistance and free and discounted student lunches.
“The safety net is often criticized for being a patchwork of programs, but that’s also a strength,” Dana Thomson, a co-author of the Child Trends study, told the Times. “It reaches a variety of people in a variety of circumstances.”
The bottom line: Though the causes are complex, child poverty in the U.S. has dropped dramatically over 25 years, in large part thanks to federal aid programs. Former President Ronald Reagan once famously said, “The federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” According to this analysis, that quip may need to be retired.