At risk in America: Experts weigh in on how to lift children out of poverty, despite recent improvement

By Lori O’Keefe

The poverty rate for U.S. children under the age of 18 dropped for the first time since 2000 — from 21.8% in 2012 to 19.9% in 2013. That means 1.4 million kids escaped poverty in 2013, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau report.

Although this is good news, 14.7 million children still live in poverty and account for more than 32% of the nation’s impoverished population.

“The decline in childhood poverty is wonderful news, yet in the context of poverty, the childhood rate remains unacceptable,” said Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). “The longer children experience poverty, the worse their outcomes are in adulthood.”

Hispanic children had the biggest decline in poverty, from 33.3% in 2012 to 30% in 2013. But this group also had a huge jump in poverty rates between 2006 and 2010, increasing from 26.6% to 34.3%.

Black children were the only group not to experience a drop in poverty from 2012 to 2013. Among all youths, black children had the highest poverty rate.


The Census Bureau attributes the overall improvement to more people working full time, year-round. The number of families with at least one full-time, year-round worker increased by 220,000, and median family income rose from $60,856 to $62,161.

Poverty, however, is not always related to unemployment. More than 70% of poor children have at least one parent who works, and more than 30% of poor children and more than 50% of low-income children have at least one parent who is employed full time, year round.

However, 40% of low-income parents do not have paid time off work, according to a CLASP report, putting them at further financial and employment risk when they stay home to care for a sick child.

The 2013 Census Bureau report noted that related children living in families headed by single mothers had the highest poverty rate in 2013 — 45.8% — compared to 9.5% for related children living in married-couple households.


“Why are pediatricians interested? The answer is simple. Any pediatrician who sees patients affected by poverty sees that their health is affected, too,” said AAP President James M. Perrin, M.D., FAAP.

Studies have shown that poverty can negatively impact mental health, development, fitness and nutrition, and it is linked to such problems as stress, anxiety, substance use, lower immunization rates, obesity and poor academics, among others.

In addition, the highest rates of poverty belong to children under the age of 3, an important time in a young child’s life when early brain development occurs.


“We need to find ways to support young families with the ability to provide care and nurturing to their children during this critical time,” said Dr. Perrin. “That includes making sure that disadvantaged children have access to early education and high-quality child care so that parents know their children are in a safe and nurturing environment when they are at work.”

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives reauthorized the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CC DBG). Expected to have been passed by the Senate in November, CCDBG seeks to improve the quality of child care.

CCDBG and other successful programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit (CTC), Unemployment Insurance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, indirectly benefit people financially and could help to spur a downward trend in poverty rates. However, improvements made to EITC and CTC in 2009 are set to expire in 2017.

“Many people have been lifted out of poverty by the tax credits, and allowing provisions to expire would cause more children to become poor or to go deeper into poverty,” said Sharon Parrott, vice president for budget policy and economics, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Health Leads is another program that helps low-income families, allowing pediatricians and other providers to “prescribe” basic resources, such as food, housing and heating assistance. Volunteers help families locate these resources.

The Academy has made reducing child poverty one of its priorities, adding it to the Agenda for Children. It also has created the Poverty and Child Health Leadership Workgroup, which is developing a strategic plan to address the health effects of poverty and ensure the healthy development of all children within a medical home.

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