Nearly 1 in 5 US children live in poverty, despite improvements

Study shows positive trends in child wellbeing, but racial gaps remain.

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Four million American children still lack basic healthcare coverage, though that number is significantly better than in 2010 [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

Although their collective wellbeing has improved, almost one in five children in the United States – some 13.3 million children – are living in poverty, according to a report released on Monday. Poverty is defined as annual income of less than $25,750 for a family of four, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the 16 indicators of child wellbeing tracked by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book, 11 showed improvement between 2010 and 2017. 

The data book measures four benchmarks within four different domains critical to helping children thrive: economic wellbeing, education, health, and family and community.

The data is gleaned from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the most recent of which dates from 2017. As of that year, 18 percent of US children were living in poverty, down from 22 percent in 2010.

There was also a seven-year improvement in the number of parents who are financially stable and live without burdensome housing costs, as well as in the number of teens graduating from high school and delaying having kids.

The report further noted that “gains in children’s health insurance coverage continue to be something to celebrate”.

Some measurements were unchanged during that time period, including the percentage of young children not in school, the share of eighth graders not proficient in math, the percentage of children in single-parent families, and the number of child and teen deaths.

The percentage of infants with low birth weight increased slightly in the same timeframe. 

The report’s authors hope the findings will help shape public policy in the United States. 

Leslie Boissiere, who oversees the publication of the Kids Count report, told Al Jazeera that because many social programs are based on census data, “It is critical that we get an accurate and complete count”.

“The census will affect how communities will allocate resources,” Boissiere said. “At the national level, federal dollars [go] to states based on population – so they are at risk of not receiving the level of funding that they should.”

Boissiere cited the earned income tax credit and child tax credit as programmes that necessitate correct statistics and “allow working families to retain more of their income and provide for their families”.

Changing demographics

The Kids Count study also showed the increasing number and diversity of American children.

In 1990, there were 64 million children in the US. Now there are almost 74 million – although the total actually peaked in 2009.

But the press release that accompanied the report noted that the US has been unable “to equip many children, particularly in communities of color, with what they need to reach their full potential”.

“We want all children to have a bright future – not only because every child ought to have the chance to enjoy a happy, healthy life but also because when kids do well, America is stronger,” said the report.

“Today’s kids will be tomorrow’s community leaders, workers and parents,” it added. “And in many ways, today’s kids are doing better: More are graduating from high school, avoiding drugs and alcohol and delaying pregnancy until after their teenage years.”

However, the survey said, “We have failed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities among children and dismantle the obstacles that so many children of color encounter on the road to adulthood”.

And while 69 percent of US children were white 30 years ago, now that figure is 53 percent. Around 18 million children are either immigrants themselves or the sons and daughters of immigrants. And one-quarter of US children have at least one immigrant parent.

The demography of children reflects national shifts, with 26 percent of children categorised as Latino, up from 12 percent. California and New Mexico are states where the majority of children are Latino, and Texas will soon follow. States across the Sun Belt are also seeing large increases in the number of Latino children.

The population of Asian and Pacific Islander children doubled, up from three percent to six percent. At the same time, the number of African-American and American Indian children remained the same, at 15 percent and one percent, respectively.

Geographic shift

This year’s study was the 30th edition of the annual report, which is based on publicly available data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Child population growth has surpassed the US average in the South and West. The state of Texas alone has 2.5 million more kids than it did 30 years ago. Florida added 1.2 million children, while California added 1.1 million. A majority of states in the Northeast – and four states in the Midwest – saw their child populations decline.

Since the goal of the survey is to help drive public-policy decisions based on the US census, statistics on families and communities from big cities to small towns are a key part of the effort. The 2020 count will be crucial “to collect the data necessary to guide policymakers and other leaders over the next decade,” the report said.

The study seeks to provide information to uplift children “regardless of their ZIP code, their family’s income or their race, ethnicity or immigration status”, Lisa Hamilton, CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, noted in the report.

“All of the 74 million kids in our increasingly diverse country have unlimited potential, and we have the data, knowledge and evidence to create the policies that will help them realize it,” said Hamilton.

“America’s children are one quarter of our population and 100 percent of our future.”

Source: Al Jazeera