Child Poverty More Than Doubled in 2022, Underscoring Need for Better Policy
Washington, D.C., September 12, 2023—Today’s U.S. Census Bureau report shows—once again—that poverty in the United States is a policy choice. According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), the overall rate of poverty in 2022 was 12.4 percent, markedly increasing from 7.8 percent in 2021, even as both total employment and full-time, year-round employment rose. And the child poverty rate as measured by the SPM more than doubled, from 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 in 2022, the largest one-year increase on record—following the largest one-year decrease on record in 2021. While the SPM poverty rate grew for all groups of children, Black and Hispanic children continued to experience disproportionately high poverty rates, 17.8 percent and 19.5 percent respectively, compared to 7.2 percent for non-Hispanic white children. Non-citizens also experienced disproportionately high poverty, with an SPM poverty rate more than twice the native-born population (24.4 percent vs. 11.2 percent).
Poverty rates are affected far more by decisions made in Washington D.C., and in state capitals than any decisions made by families and communities. In fact, the primary factors contributing to U.S. poverty rates are policies that create or reinforce structural and systemic challenges like structural racism and patriarchy, enhance or undermine worker power, strengthen or weaken the social protection system, and generally ensure a strong economy that delivers widespread prosperity.
The historic decline in child poverty two years ago was the result of COVID-era policies, including an expanded, enhanced, and more equitable Child Tax Credit (CTC) and other federal programs to support people with low incomes, particularly children. Yet policymakers decided not to extend the enhanced CTC, turning their backs on children by rejecting a proven tool to fight poverty that offered Americans a return of more than $9 on each dollar of investment in families experiencing the lowest incomes. And 18 states prematurely ended SNAP emergency allotments despite elevated food prices last year, declining millions of federal dollars in nutritional support.
“Too much is at stake in both the lives of children and families, and the health of our communities for politicians to do nothing or even actively undermine them. Mountains of research make unequivocally clear that poverty hurts children, youth, and families, while also holding back the U.S. economy,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, president and executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).
Parents with low incomes work hard every day to meet their children’s material and developmental needs. Poverty acts as a weight, pulling them back and making it harder—sometimes impossible—to overcome common challenges and setbacks. As a result, children growing up in poverty are at higher risk of developmental delays, behavioral challenges, and a lack of school readiness. First and foremost, all children deserve an opportunity to meet their highest potential. But the costs of not addressing child poverty aren’t just felt by the children themselves. One study estimates that child poverty costs the U.S. economy just over $1 trillion per year, or 5.4 percent of GDP.
Abundant evidence demonstrates that income support programs can improve the rates of child poverty. Cash supports for families lead to better birth outcomes, greater educational attainment, and improved overall health. Research also shows that this assistance reduces child welfare system involvement, lowering the risk of children being separated from their families. “As the expanded CTC revealed in 2021, we have the tools to end child poverty in this country. We just need the political will to use them,” said Dutta-Gupta.
The Census report also found that the share of people without health insurance in 2022 dropped by 0.4 percent to 7.9 percent, tying the previous low. This also reflects a policy choice to establish the continuous coverage provision under Medicaid that began in 2020. Unfortunately, this provision ended in 2023, and we know that at least 5.9 million people, including many children, have already lost Medicaid coverage. When we see the 2023 figures, the uninsurance rate will likely be much higher. We need a permanent system offering affordable, continuous health insurance coverage to all, without forcing people to navigate a paperwork maze to keep their coverage. Continuous coverage reduces administrative burden and prevents delays and gaps in treatment that can lead to worse health outcomes.
Congress has an outsized role in reversing the country’s increased poverty. And September is a pivotal time, as Congress must pass bills by the end of the month to fund the continued operation of the federal government. This is an opportunity for policymakers to provide adequate funding to fight poverty and promote well-being, free of harmful “riders.” This includes addressing the child care funding cliff threatening families and our economy, passing a Farm Bill that improves SNAP and makes it more equitable, and enacting a CTC that’s paid to families regardless of their specific federal income tax liability and that applies to families without regard to immigration status.