An ‘Astounding’ Decline in US Child Poverty

An ‘Astounding’ Decline in US Child Poverty

By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Monday, September 12, 2022

Happy Monday!

The House will reconvene on Tuesday after an extended recess — and lawmakers are set to spend all of October campaigning for re-election, leaving precious little time to pass legislation, including a continuing resolution to extend federal funding and avoid a government shutdown after September 30. The stopgap funding bill is expected to keep agencies functioning until mid-December — either the 9th or the 16th of the month — when funding would again have to be provided.

But Democrats are still divided over a measure to reform the energy permitting process, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said he intends to include with the continuing resolution, honoring a deal he struck with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to pass the Inflation Reduction Act last month. That split threatens to complicate the process of keeping the government’s lights on.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) told Bloomberg Television that the Senate is planning to vote first on the spending bill. He added that Democratic leaders will have to "convince our members" to approve the stopgap if the permitting bill is included.

Here’s what else is happening.

An ‘Astounding’ Decline in US Child Poverty

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.

What’s behind the gains: The analysis found that multiple factors played a role in the decline of child poverty, 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.

Quote of the Day

"We’re finally going to make infrastructure begin to work. … And we’re going to be spending a lot of money, and we're going to get it done quickly. And we’re going to go all through America, making our airports the best in the world again. That’s what this is about."

President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters before traveling to Boston to tout a $62 million investment in Logan Airport funded via the bipartisan infrastructure law he signed. At an event in Boston, Biden lamented that not a single U.S. airport ranks in the top 25 globally.

Josh Boak of the Associated Press notes that Biden has recently dialed back talk of inflation: "It’s a self-edit ahead of the midterm elections in November, prompted in part by the easing of inflationary pressures. But Biden is also attempting to shift the spotlight to his legislative wins, the loss of abortion protections and the threats he says are posed to democracy by the many Republican leaders still under the sway of former President Donald Trump."

Chart of the Day: The Unprecedented Drop in Public Education Employment

The Covid-19 pandemic sparked the largest decline in employment at U.S. public schools on record, with about 800,000 school employees losing or quitting their jobs in the spring of 2020. Roughly half of those jobs, which include everything from teachers to bus drivers, have been recovered, but that leaves about 360,000 positions to fill just to get back to where things were before the pandemic struck. "We’re still trying to dig out of that hole," Chad Aldeman, policy director at the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, told the Associated Press.


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