As school year begins, a bad grade on child poverty
In each school year since 2000, a higher number of U.S. children have qualified for the national free and reduced lunch program. This program may help low-income children pass their classes, but more federal and state support is needed for their families if the nation wants to stop failing its children.
That's according to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP). In August the NCCP released a study that documents a recent increase in child poverty rates by region and advocates policies "that really make work pay [and create] a secure safety net," says Heather Koball, a senior research associate and co-author of the report, The New Poor: Regional Trends in Child Poverty.
The study reports that 18 percent of all children in the U.S., or 13.5 million children, lived in poverty in 2004, an increase of 12 percent from 2000. "People know that there has been a rise in poverty since 2000," Koball says. "We wanted to look at the broader economic and social context in which the rise occurred."
This unfortunate national trend is led by the Midwest, which has seen a 29 percent increase in child poverty since 2000. Koball and the NCCP were surprised to learn that this upsurge came among children living with parents who were employed. This group grew by 2 percent, accounting for 417,716 more poor children in the region. Poverty among children living with parents who are not college educated also increased by 8 percent.
The data leads the NCCP to theorize that increased child poverty in the Midwest was caused by the replacement of relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs with less stable service jobs. To counter this, the report advocates policies that strength regional economies as well as promote more livable wages and better benefits.
The NCCP also learned from comparing the South and the West, where there was no significant rise in child poverty. The South has the greatest number of children, 5.4 million, living in poverty. One-third of these children live with immigrant families. The researchers believe a large influx of mostly Latino immigrants into the region explains the 6 percent increase in poverty among children living with immigrants. Poverty among children with native-born parents only rose 1 percent.
California, the report notes, has the largest immigrant population but has curbed the increase in poverty among them by offering safety-net programs not available at the federal level.
The NCCP's findings should affect the discussion of poverty and what can be done about it. "When talking about poverty it's important to remember that there are individual stories of hardship and those are important, but also that there is a broader economic structure that doesn't favor these families," Koball says.
The public needs to push the government for the policy changes outlined in the report, she says. Despite the numbers, she is hopeful that recent attention to the problems of low-wage workers and real movements to increase the minimum wage on a state level mean America's working poor may soon get a break. "It's good that the American public doesn't think it's fair that [working people] can't take care of their kids," she says.—Megan Sweas