The Poor American Child

Child poverty is an alarming problem in the United States that affects every person in the United States, regardless of economic status, age, race, or gender. In 2001, 11.7 million children, or 16.3 % of

children in the United States were poor. Children represent an inconsistent percentage of the poor population in America. They make up 35.7 percent of the poor, but only account for 25.6 percent of the general population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003). It is imperative to give attention to the problem of poverty among children since they are the future of the country, and they are not receiving the support, resources, or encouragement to know they deserve better.

“The industrial countries in the world have a higher standard of living than at any time in history, but within the wealthy countries, there are still a number of children who live in poverty. The United States, which is the wealthiest country of six studied, had the highest poverty rate among children and the second highest poverty rate among families with children” (Smeeding, 1988).

The focus population of this analysis of child poverty is children in the United States under 18 years of age. This analysis will discuss the definition, history, trends, and policy responses of child poverty, as well as the nature and extent of how child poverty is affecting the United States.

Unlike single adults, who are defined as poor when their income falls below a certain level, children, those individuals under age 18, are poor when their families are poor. The Census Bureau maintains the official U.S. definition of poverty: a family is poor when their money income falls below an established threshold. Poverty thresholds are updated yearly and different thresholds apply depending on the total family size and number of children. In 2002, a family of two adults and two children was considered poor if their income falls below $18,244 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).

It is not difficult to document that poor children suffer a disproportionate share of deprivation, hardship, and bad outcomes. Not only do poor children have access to fewer material goods than rich or middle-class children, but also they are more likely to experience poor health and to die during childhood. In school, they score lower on standardized tests and are more likely to be retained in grade and to drop out. Poor teens are more likely to have out-of-wedlock births and to experience violent crime. Finally, persistently poor children are more likely to end up as poor adults. Public concern for poor children has focused both on their material well-being and on the relationship between poverty and important child outcomes that the public values such as success in school. However, accurately measuring the effects of poverty on many important child outcomes is a challenge.

Despite the evidence that poor children experience undesirable outcomes across a wide variety of signs, many studies lack the precision needed to untangle the effects on children of the array of factors other than low income associated with poverty. For example, poor families are more likely to be headed by a parent who is young, single, has low educational attainment, is unemployed, and has low earnings potential. These parental attributes, separately or in combination, may account for some of the observed negative consequences of poverty for children. In addition, the population of poor families is a mix of families who are temporarily poor and families who have experienced chronic hardship. Although the majority of poor families are only temporarily poor, the experiences of the persistently poor fit better the stereotype of an underclass trapped in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, beset by high crime rates, poor schools, substance abuse, and other social pathologies. Failure to take account of the differences in the duration of poverty children experience may lead to either an under- or overestimate of the effects of poverty on children. Understanding the relationships among income, other parental characteristics, community factors, and environmental hazards and child outcomes is important to designing effective policies to ameliorate the problems of poor children. Programs that alter family income may not have intended benefits for children if the importance of family income has been misinterpreted.

Public policy for poor families with children is currently unstable. As a result of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly called “welfare,” is being replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a new cash assistance program. From 1935 through 1996, AFDC was the main cash assistance program for children under age 18 and their parents or caretaker relatives. AFDC assisted more than nine million children annually in recent years. AFDC targeted children who lacked financial support because one parent was absent from home, incapacitated, dead, or unemployed.

AFDC was an entitlement: all families who met eligibility rules received benefits. PRWORA ended entitlement to welfare and gave each state more flexibility in designing eligibility rules and benefit packages. TANF benefits are time-limited (five years is the lifetime maximum time for which an adult may receive federally financed benefits, with 20% of the caseload in each state exempt from that maximum), and require recipients to work after two years. (States are, however, free to impose shorter time limits and to provide more than five years of benefits if they use their own funds.)

Benefits to unmarried parents under age 18 are restricted, and benefits for most legal immigrants are eliminated. The publicly avowed purpose of PRWORA was to reform U.S. welfare policy so as to break what was seen as a cycle of dependency on welfare by poor single-parent families and to encourage parents in these families to find jobs, take more responsibility for their children, and gain increased independence and self-reliance.

Taken in historical context, the current effort to “end welfare as we know it” is only the latest in a series of shifts in U.S. public policy toward the poor. One explanation for the cause of shifts in poverty policy over time is that American public opinion swings between alternative perspectives on the underlying source of disadvantage for poor children. These perspectives have also found expression in the research on the effects of poverty on children and child outcomes. One viewpoint holds that parents’ poor characters, or limited physical and mental capacities, lead to both poverty and problems for their children. The other perspective emphasizes the adverse impact on children of material deprivation and parental stress caused by poverty. In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the former view led to such policies as almshouses, orphan asylums, foster care placements, and intrusive and strict supervision of single mothers who received public support to take care of their own children in their own homes. In response to the widespread unemployment and deep poverty experienced during the Great Depression, emphasis shifted away from shielding children from the behavior of their parents to improving the material well-being of families and children by providing direct cash assistance. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, restrictions on the availability of cash support to poor families (especially single-parent, female-headed ones) were reduced, and AFDC caseloads grew from 162,000 families in 1936 to 1,875,000 families in 1969.

Attitudes toward poor families with children have changed again in the past 30 years. The large increase in the proportion of married mothers who work contributed to the view that employment was acceptable and expected behavior for mothers. This change in social norms, coupled with concerns that welfare discouraged work and encouraged sloth and dependency, led to a decline in support for cash welfare programs.

As support for cash welfare programs eroded over the past 30 years, a set of programs to provide for the basic needs of the poor through in-kind rather than cash benefits evolved. The largest of these programs focused on families are the Food Stamp Program, federally subsidized housing programs, Medicaid, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Head Start. The latter three programs can provide benefits directly to children without providing for their parents as do the school lunch and breakfast programs.

The problems of poverty in the United States have proven to be persistent and difficult to solve. This analysis has focused on policies that have the potential to improve, but not necessarily eliminate, the problems of poverty for a large number of children in the United States. Where children are involved, it is hard to overestimate the value of short-run solutions. Five years is a long time in the development of a young child.

More could be done over a longer time horizon for poor children and their parents, and to address the conditions that lead to child poverty. For example, single-parenthood and declining wages for poorly educated adults, key factors in the growth in child poverty in recent years, have been hard problems to solve. Policies to reduce childbearing among single young women and to upgrade the job skills of working-age adults might reverse or, at least, slow the upward trend in child poverty. Similarly, programs to improve parenting skills and the home environment, boost the quality of child care and schools, and assure safe environments would benefit poor children.

“Lifting all of America’s children securely from poverty will require more vigilance, and more funding, than the nation now invests. It will also require extending income supplements and incentives for parents to work. To move from welfare to work, parents need support services such as child care, job training, and transportation–services that traditional welfare recipients do not need. Fortunately, thanks to unexpectedly healthy economies in most states, along with federal funding that remains frozen at each state’s pre-1996 level, unused money for this purpose abounds for now, and good models for rescuing children from poverty are not hard to find” (Sherman, 1999).

Although there may be some truth to the old adage that “the poor will always be with us,” the evidence suggests that the problems of poor children can be made tractable. It will be necessary to move steadily ahead but also to take time to evaluate progress and modify the course as warranted by the evidence. In the face of fiscal constraints, it may be necessary to set priorities.

Prioritization may also be a reasonable strategy. This would suggest a focus on subsidized child care and expanded health insurance to support welfare reform and attention to strengthening the safety net. Finally, expectations should be kept realistic, if not modest, particularly if only a limited child poverty policy agenda can be attempted. Observation of the current political scene suggests that distrust in government and the feeling that nothing works are reactions to unrealistic expectations created by the overselling of previous programs by their promoters and an overemphasis on their shortcomings by those who advocate change.

Handsnet. (14 August 1995). U.S. poor are among world’s poorest. The New York Times.
Retrieved Saturday, October 6, 2007 from
Sherman, A. (Winter 1999). Children’s poverty in America. Forum for Applied Research and
Public Policy, 14, 4. p.68. Retrieved Sunday, October 07, 2007, from General
OneFile via Gale:
Smeeding, T. & Torrey, B. (Nov 11, 1988). Poor children in rich
countries. Science, 242, n4880. p.873(5). Retrieved Saturday, October 06, 2007, from General
OneFile via Gale:
U.S. Census Bureau. (2003). Poverty thresholds. Retrieved Saturday, October 06, 2007 from