By Marian Wright Edelman
Pope Francis speaks out faithfully and forcefully against poverty and has been called “the pope of the poor.” But on his first visit to the United States there was demoralizing news about poverty, especially child poverty, in our nation – the world’s largest economy.
Despite six years of economic recovery, children remain the poorest group in America.
Children are poor if they live in a family of four with an annual income below $24,418 –$2,035 a month, $470 a week, $67 a day. Extreme poverty is income less than half this.
New Census Bureau data reveal that nearly one-third of the 46.7 million poor people in the United States in 2014 were children. Of the more than 15.5 million poor children, 70 percent were children of color who already constitute the majority of our nation’s youngest children and will be the majority of all our children by 2020.
They continue to be disproportionately poor: 37 percent of Black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children are poor compared to 12 percent of White, non-Hispanic children. This is morally scandalous and economically costly. Every year we let millions of children remain poor costs our nation more than $500 billion as a result of lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.
Nearly 1 in 4 children under 5 years old is poor and almost half live in extreme poverty. More than 40 percent of Black children under 5 are poor and nearly 25 percent of young Black children are extremely poor.The Black child poverty rate increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2014 while rates for children of other races and ethnicities declined slightly. The Black extreme child poverty rate increased 13 percent with nearly 1 in 5 Black children living in extreme poverty. Although the Hispanic child poverty rate fell slightly, Hispanic children remain our largest number of poor children.
New state data show child poverty rates in 2014 remained at record high levels across 40 states, with only 10 states showing significant declines between 2013 and 2014. In 22 states, 40 percent or more Black children were poor. In 32 states, more than 30 percent of Hispanic children were poor. And in 24 states, more than 30 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children were poor. Only Hawaii had a Black child poverty rate below 20 percent while only two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, had White, non-Hispanic child poverty rates over 20 percent.
The rates are staggering, especially when we know there are steps Congress could take right now to end child poverty and save taxpayer money now and in the future. In CDF’s recent Ending Child Poverty Now report based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, we proposed nine policy changes which would immediately reduce child poverty 60 percent and Black child poverty 72 percent and lift the floor of decency for 97 percent of all poor children by ensuring parents the resources to support and nurture their children: jobs with livable wages, affordable high-quality child care, supports for working families like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and safety nets for basic needs like nutrition, housing assistance and child support.
Congress must make permanent improvements in pro-work tax credits (both the EITC and the CTC), increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefit, and expand housing subsidies and quality child care investments for children when parents work. To complement gains in these areas and to reduce child poverty long term, we must ensure all children comprehensive affordable health care, high-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities to get ready for school and a level education playing field to help all children achieve and succeed in life. It is a great national, economic and military security threat that a majority of all children in America cannot read or compute at grade level and that nearly three-fourths of our Black and Latino children cannot.
Data show key safety net programs lifted millions of people, including children above the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) poverty line, between 2013 and 2014. These supports all reduced child poverty: SNAP (4.7 million people), rent subsidies (2.8 million people), and the Earned Income Tax Credit and the low-income portion of the Child Tax Credit (roughly 10 million people including more than 5 million children). There also is strong evidence these measures will provide long-term benefits for children.
We know how to reduce child poverty but keep refusing to do it. How can our Congressional leaders even discuss spending as much as $400 billion to extend tax cuts for corporations and businesses while denying more than 15.5 million poor children – 70 percent non-White – the opportunity to improve their odds of succeeding in school and in life?
We can and must do more right now as children have only one childhood.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.