Earlier this week, First Focus on Children co-hosted a webinar with the Children’s Defense Fund, and the Child Poverty Action Group on the topic of the 2019 Census Data released this month on child poverty. The collection and publication of this data are incredibly useful because they capture families’ socio-economic realities with children. This acts as a point of reference for advocacy work, policy change, allocation of public services, and local and state funding. Further, it can highlight positive trends in the economic health of American families. For example, the data shows that between 2018 and 2019, median household income increased by 6.8 percent, and child poverty rates decreased by 1.8 percent.
There are, however, important limitations to this data. The official poverty measure (OPM) and the supplemental poverty measure (SPM) often do not humanize the lived experiences of those living in poverty and fail to account for families’ socio-economic needs with children. Another striking limitation is the poverty threshold: in 2019, poverty was defined as annual income below $25,926 for a family of four with two children, while extreme poverty was defined as less than $12,963 per year. Families earning above $26,000 might not be defined as “impoverished” but are nonetheless struggling—although the extent of this certainly depends on location.
Secondly, and most importantly, the 2019 data does not capture the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn. Our economy and our society have shifted massively in the past six months, and although this data was released this month, it is unfortunately outdated. The panelists agreed that COVID-19 has completely reversed any progress made in reducing child poverty over the past few years. We know families are struggling now more than ever with income, access to food, access to healthcare, and access to reliable housing. This has devastating effects on America’s most impoverished families and, specifically, on families of color. Timely, effective, and equitable solutions are needed to address these problems as our country recovers from the pandemic.
A critical piece of child poverty issues relates to hunger and food insecurity rates. About 14 to 17 million children and young adults are food insecure, meaning that they go to bed without eating enough food during the day. Black and Latino families experience higher rates of food insecurity, and we know that COVID-19 has exasperated these concerns. Many families living in poverty rely on free school meals for their children, and virtual learning has meant many children are going hungry. A lot of great work has been done to respond to this challenge and ensure that children are being fed, but there remains a gap. Some families still have reduced access and have to rely on other benefits—but other benefits (e.g., SNAP) are often not enough to feed a family three meals per day. It is clear that policy change is needed in this realm. Child nutrition waivers (which have allowed for delivery models and grab ‘n go hubs to provide school meals) and SNAP benefits need to be extended beyond the calendar year and made more generous. One panelist commented: “we need to find a way to make sure kids are not going hungry this school year.”
Moreover, food insecurity intersects with the overall well-being of families with children. A caregiver’s inability to provide food and other resources significantly increases their stress levels, and this is absorbed by the young children around them. High rates of economic difficulty and emotional trauma within a family hinders the growth and development of children, which reveals a “crisis within a crisis.” Durable policy solutions are needed to solve the health, social and economic challenges of these families—including affordable child care, pandemic unemployment, medical leave, and emergency services.