KIDS COUNT Data Book: 21 Years and Still Sobering

Aug 18, 2011

By Jodie Levin-Epstein

The 2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book  offers a sobering picture of child poverty in the United States.  Although the annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT initiative has some good news since its inception 21 years ago-such as decreases in infant mortality, high school dropout and teen births-it also delineates worsening trends that indicate children are more likely to be poor and to struggle because their parents do not have high quality jobs.

In 2000, 39 percent of children were in low-income families. Today, that number is an astounding 42 percent. The study designates a family "low-income" if its income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $44,700 a year for a family of four.  What's more, one out of every 5 children lives at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.  In large measure this increase has been driven by poor job quality and stagnating wages. Parents continue to work hard, but their work is not being rewarded with wages sufficient to support families.

The recent recession has simply made a bad situation worse. The report's essay America's Children, America's Challenge: Promoting Opportunity for the Next Generation, asserts that the costs of supporting a family continue to increase while wages remain static:

"It now takes two incomes to maintain the same standard of living that a unionized blue-collar worker with only a high school diploma provided for his family a generation ago. At the same time, families face increased costs for child care and transportation since most parents are in the labor force. The decline in employer-sponsored health insurance required many families to absorb high insurance costs themselves or go without insurance altogether. Squeezed financially, struggling families have had little left over to save, and many have accumulated enormous debt. All of these trends have left low- and middle-income families with few buffers against the hardship of a deep recession, making the road to recovery far steeper."

Children who grow up with the stresses of instability and hardships of low family income suffer a range of poor outcomes, such as low school achievement. This is why economic buffers including food, housing and cash assistance are essential. For a child living in poverty, these supports can mean the difference between having the tools to thrive in school and life and being left behind. This instability also limits the nation's future economic productivity."

The Data Book allows advocates to pull together state statistics for 10 key indicators that show where progress has been made and where more is needed.  To promote opportunity, KIDS COUNT outlines a set of policies that help mitigate the impact of the current recession, such as unemployment insurance and SNAP (food stamp) benefits. It urges strengthening these programs along with other policies such as  expanding tax credits, making health care affordable, and encouraging savings. 

While the data is sobering, there is reason for optimism.  Even in the midst of the recession, there is evidence of successful campaigns focused on improving the circumstances of low-income families. For example, in New York, a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was enacted and a similar measure is pending in the California legislature.  And a new national movement, Caring Across Generations, is designed to create quality, dignified care for all premised on decent wages and benefits.  A bipartisan effort in Illinois resulted in a new wage-theft law that seeks to ensure that workers get paid for the work they perform.  

Now is the time to enhance policies that alleviate poverty and improve child well-being. The KIDS COUNT Data Book vividly demonstrates that investments do matter, and that when parents struggle, their kids struggle and their outcomes are worse.

When the KIDS COUNT Data Book reaches 30, CLASP hopes that these and other campaigns will have generated improvements in family and child well-being that can be celebrated across the nation. We continue to work toward that goal.

Read related post: Data Show More Children Are Growing up Poor. Now What?

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