Expanded safety net drives sharp drop in child poverty
By Jason DeParle
For a generation or more, America’s high levels of child poverty set it apart from other rich nations, leaving millions of young people lacking support as basic as food and shelter amid mounting evidence that early hardship leaves children poorer, sicker and less educated as adults.
But with little public notice and accelerating speed, America’s children have become much less poor.
A comprehensive new analysis shows that child poverty has fallen 59% since 1993, with need receding on nearly every front. Child poverty has fallen in every state, and it has fallen by about the same degree among children who are white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, living with one parent or two, and in native or immigrant households. Deep poverty, a form of especially severe deprivation, has fallen nearly as much.
In 1993, nearly 28% of children were poor, meaning their households lacked the income the government deemed necessary to meet basic needs. By 2019, before temporary pandemic aid drove it even lower, child poverty had fallen to about 11%.
More than 8 million children remained in poverty, and despite shared progress, Black and Latino children are about three times as likely as white children to be poor. With the poverty line low (about $29,000 for a family of four in a place with typical living costs), many families who escape poverty in the statistical sense still experience hardship.
Still, the sharp retreat of child poverty represents major progress and has drawn surprisingly little notice, even among policy experts.
It has coincided with profound changes to the safety net, which at once became more stringent and more generous. Starting in the 1990s, tough welfare laws shrank cash aid to parents without jobs. But other subsidies grew, especially for working families, and total federal spending on low-income children roughly doubled.
To examine the drop in child poverty, The New York Times collaborated with Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group with an expertise in statistical analysis. The joint project relied on the data the Census Bureau uses to calculate poverty rates but examined it over more years and in greater demographic detail.
The analysis found that multiple forces reduced child poverty, including lower unemployment, increased labor force participation among single mothers and the growth of state-level minimum wages. But a dominant factor was the expansion of government aid.
In 1993, safety net programs cut child poverty by 9% from what it would have been absent the aid. By 2019, those programs had cut child poverty by 44%, and the number of children they removed from poverty more than tripled to 6.5 million.
“This is an astounding decline in child poverty,” said Dana Thomson, a co-author of the Child Trends study. “Its magnitude is unequaled in the history of poverty measurement, and the single largest explanation is the growth of the safety net.”
Renee Ryberg, another co-author, said the poverty reduction offered millions of children greater prospects of success. “A childhood free of poverty predicts better adult outcomes in just about every area you can imagine, including education, earnings and health,” she said.
The analysis excluded 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, because pandemic aid made it unrepresentative. Including it makes the decline since 1993 even greater, at 69%.
The plunge in child poverty is the opposite of what most liberal experts predicted a quarter-century ago when President Bill Clinton signed a law from a Republican Congress to “end welfare as we know it.”
Conservatives say the landmark law pushed more parents to work and call it the main reason child poverty declined. Progressives say many working families would still be poor without the expanded safety net, which grew in part to compensate for stagnant wages amid decades of rising inequality.
“This decline in child poverty is very significant. I cannot say it enough,” said Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, a poverty expert at Brandeis University who reviewed the data. “If we still had the rates as we had in the 1990s, there would be 12 million more children in poverty.”
In measuring poverty, the analysis used the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, the yardstick that best accounts for government aid. Unlike the outdated Official Poverty Measure, the supplemental measure counts billions in tax credits, SNAP and other benefits, and adjusts for local living costs, providing a more accurate tally of household resources. While 2009 is the earliest year for which the Census Bureau produced the supplemental measure, researchers at Columbia University calculated it for earlier decades, and Child Trends drew on their data.
While the official measure shows child poverty falling 37% from a 1993 peak, the supplemental measure shows a 59% decline.
The decline of child poverty coincides with progress on another measure of children’s well-being. The share who lack health insurance fell by about two-thirds, mostly because of expansions of Medicaid and other government insurance. While those programs often improve children’s health, they do not directly reduce poverty because the government does not count insurance as income.
Almost every program that Child Trends examined does more to reduce child poverty than it did a quarter-century ago, either because it raised benefits, expanded eligibility or made it easier to enroll.
But each program expanded in its own way — some by congressional intent (tax credits) and others by demographic change (Social Security) or court order (Supplemental Security Income, which provides disability aid). A primary goal was to help low-wage workers, but there were also major expansions of programs with few if any work rules (SNAP and school meals).
The story of the safety net, in other words, is a story of safety nets — multiple programs with multiple aims, sometimes evolving in uncoordinated or accidental ways.
“The safety net is often criticized for being a patchwork of programs, but that’s also a strength,” Thomson said. “It reaches a variety of people in a variety of circumstances.”
The aid is often large. The average family lifted out of poverty received nearly $18,000 in benefits — more than 40% of its after-tax income.
Among the programs that most affected children is one aimed at retirees. Social Security cut child poverty by 14%, more than twice as much as it did a quarter-century ago, both because benefits grew and because more children now live with elderly parents or grandparents.
Despite its progress, the United States still has more child poverty than many peer nations, though its rank depends on how poverty is defined.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental group, ranks the United States 36th out of 41 countries, defining poor children as those with less than half their country’s median income. But since the United States is unusually wealthy, its poor children may have higher incomes than some nonpoor children abroad.
The United States looks better in comparisons that use the American poverty line as a common standard. Yet even with that definition, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2019 found the United States ranked fourth among five rich English-speaking countries, trailing Australia, Canada and Ireland.
“We could do a lot better,” said Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, though she hailed the progress as evidence that solutions can be found.
“When we spend money, we make gains,” she said. “Providing more resources to low-income families changes children’s life trajectories.”