New Numbers, Same Bleak Trend?: Why Our Children’s Future Must Start Today

Patrick McCarthy
September 19, 2011

This week’s release of the 2010 national child poverty rate confirms that the economic security of children in the United States is not a problem of the future, but an issue for today. The new Census Bureau data from the Current Population Survey show that the U.S. child poverty rate increased from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 22.0 percent in 2010. More than one out of five children now live below the poverty line, meaning their chances of a bright future are already dim. We must act now to restore opportunity for all through a comprehensive, two-generation strategy that helps both children and their parents succeed at every step along the way.

For the past 21 years, the KIDS COUNT project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has tracked the well-being of children at the national, state, and local level. This year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, “America’s Children, America’s Challenge: Promoting Opportunity for the Next Generation”, released last month,paints a worrisome picture for children: the tough economy of the last decade wiped out the decreases in child poverty posted during the 1990s.

The recent recession and the weak economic years that preceded it have been particularly hard on families. According to the new Census data,  the number of American children living below the poverty line increased by 4,814,000 in the last decade from 11,587,000 in 2000, to 16,401,000 in 2010. The official child poverty rate - which is a conservative measure of economic hardship - has risen to 22.0 percent in 2010, significantly higher than the 16.2 percent that we achieved during the robust economy of 2000. Not only have we not progressed on childhood poverty in the last decade, we have taken a big step backwards.

Of course, the housing and jobs crises of the past three years have further increased economic insecurity for many families. Eleven percent of children - nearly eight million kids - lived with at least one unemployed parent in 2010; double the number from just a few years ago, in 2007.  Home foreclosures are also now affecting a significant number of children, with an estimated four percent (more than five million children) impacted between 2007 and 2009.

We all like to pride ourselves on living in a country where every child has an opportunity to be whatever he or she wants to be, but research clearly shows that children with high levels of economic insecurity are significantly less likely to successfully navigate life’s challenges and achieve future success. If we want to be able to say that every American child truly has a chance to succeed, then we must ensure that each of them are healthy, educated, and prepared to compete in the global economy. This means making a commitment to their success directly and through their parents, starting before birth and lasting throughout childhood.

The Casey Foundation recommends six strategies that can help move low-income families on a path to prosperity and give every child the chance to succeed:

1. Strengthen unemployment insurance and promote foreclosure prevention. Without such measures, many more families will face the type of severe economic insecurity that is likely to negatively affect a child’s development.

2. Preserve programs that supplement poverty-level wages, offset the high cost of childcare, and provide health insurance coverage. Such programs have lifted millions of American families out of poverty, and children and their families need these measures now more than ever.

3. Promote savings and asset protection and help families gain financial knowledge skills. Innovative pilot programs - such as delivering federal tax refunds electronically to prepaid debit cards - can provide effective mechanisms for savings. Several states have already passed legislation to curb high-cost payday loans that can trap families in a cycle of debt. Such measures, while low-cost for governments, deliver big results for families.

4. Promote responsible parenthood and ensure that mothers-to-be receive prenatal care. Research has shown that children do better when they grow up in an intact two-parent family—efforts should be encouraged across the political spectrum to find ways to remove disincentives to marriage. Additionally, the health of infants and young children is closely tied to the health of their mothers during pregnancy, and states should expand access to prenatal care to more pregnant women.

5. Ensure that children are developmentally ready to succeed in school. Home visiting and other parenting support programs can help parents understand the critical role they play in their child’s early development. Early childhood programs help ensure that every child is prepared to succeed when they start school.

6. Promote reading proficiency by the end of third grade.Deeper connections between the early childhood and K-12 systems and more consistent standards across states can better serve children and result in increased student achievement.

As lawmakers continue to clash over the federal government’s perilous financial situation, it is crucial for both sides to remember that our country’s long-term prosperity depends not just on reducing our debt, but on how well we prepare the next generation to meet the diverse challenges of a competitive global economy.

The educational success of children and the economic prospects of families are showing more positive trends in many countries around the world. But, here at home, they are sliding dangerously backwards. If we expect America to succeed in the coming decades, we must commit ourselves now to an economic strategy that prioritizes the success of our children and their families.

Read the full KIDS COUNT report at http://datacenter.kidscount.org/databook/2011 or at mobile.kidscount.org, and visit datacenter.kidscount.org for geographical profiles, customizable maps and full data from the report.


Patrick McCarthy is the president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

 

This article was originally published on Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity.  It is reprinted here with permission.