In 2010 and 2011, more than one in five children (22 percent) lived in families with incomes below the poverty line, the highest level since 1993; black and Hispanic children, children living in single-mother families, and children under five are even more likely to be poor.
Since the mid 1970s, children under 18 have been much more likely than adults to be poor.1 Being raised in poverty (defined as income of $22,811 or less in 2011 for a family of four with two children)2 places children at higher risk for a wide range of problems. Research indicates that poor children are disproportionately exposed to risk factors that may impair brain development and affect social and emotional development. These risks include environmental toxins, inadequate nutrition, maternal depression, parental substance abuse, trauma and abuse, violent crime, divorce, low-quality child care, and decreased cognitive stimulation (stemming in part from exposure to a more restricted vocabulary as infants).3,4,5
While determining causality is complex in this context, experiencing poverty is related to increased risks of negative health outcomes for young children and adolescents. When compared with all children, poor children are more likely to have poor health and chronic health conditions.6 Children in poor families are more likely to be born premature and at a low birth weight, and to develop later illnesses, such as respiratory diseases. As adolescents, poor youth are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, such as personality disorders and depression. Moreover, in comparison to all adolescents, those raised in poverty engage in higher rates of risky health-related behaviors, including smoking and early initiation of sexual activity.7,8,9
Aside from physical and mental health, poverty in childhood and adolescence is associated with a higher risk for poorer cognitive and academic outcomes, lower school attendance, lower reading and math test scores, increased distractibility, and higher rates of grade failure and early high school dropout.10,11 Poor children are also more likely than other children to have externalizing and other behavior problems, or emotional problems,12,13 and are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors during adolescence.14 Finally, growing up in poverty is associated with lower occupational status and lower wages,15,16 poorer health,17 and deficits in working memory18 in adulthood.
After reaching 23 percent in 1993—the highest rate since 196419—child poverty fell to 16 percent in 1999, then rose slowly through 2005, to 18 percent. Beginning in 2007, the data began to reflect the most recent economic downturn. Between 2006 and 2010, child poverty increased by more than one-fourth, to 22 percent of all children under 18, then remained steady between 2010 and 2011. (Figure 1)
Many researchers and advocates use 200 percent or less of the poverty threshold to identify families with “low-income”.20 In 2011, more than four in ten of children (44 percent) lived in low-income families. Ten percent of children under age 18 lived in families in extreme poverty (below 50 percent of the poverty threshold). All these measures of poverty have followed similar patterns over time. (Figure1)
Differences by Age
Children under age five are more likely than children ages five to 17 to live below the poverty line (25 versus 20 percent, respectively in 2011). Similarly, under-five white, black, and Hispanic children are each more likely than their older counterparts to live below the poverty line. However, this pattern is not true of Asian children. (Appendix 1)
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin21
Hispanic and black children are more likely to live in poor families than are white and Asian children. In 2011, 13 percent of white children, and 14 percent of Asian children, were poor, compared with 34 percent of Hispanic children and 39 percent of black children. In the same year, Hispanics and blacks were also more likely than whites and Asians to be low-income (66 and 63 percent versus 30 and 33 percent, respectively). Black children were more likely than Hispanic children to be in extreme poverty (19 versus 15 percent, respectively), and both were more likely to be in extreme poverty than white or Asian children (six and five percent, respectively). (Figure 2)
Differences by Family Structure
Children are much more likely to be poor if they live in single-mother families than if they live in married-couple families. In 2011, 48 percent of children living in single-mother families were poor, compared with 11 percent of children living in married-couple families. The same pattern holds for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian children. For example, more than half of black and Hispanic children in single-mother families were poor in 2011. In contrast, 16 percent of black children, and 23 percent of Hispanic children, in married-couple families were poor during the same year. (Figure 3)
After narrowing in the 1990s, the gap between poverty rates for children in married-couple and those in single-mother families grew between 2000 and 2005, then was stable until 2009. Since then however, the difference has grown. (Appendix 2)
State and Local Estimates
State-level child poverty estimates are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS has yearly estimates of children living at multiple ratios of the poverty levels, from 2005 onward for areas with populations of 65,000 or more, and 3-year-average estimates for areas with 20,000 or more.
Additionally, 2000-2011 state estimates for children in poverty (100 percent), children in extreme poverty (50 percent), children below 150 percent poverty, children below 200 percent poverty, children below 250 percent poverty, and children in poverty by age group are available from the KIDS COUNT Data Center. (Click on Economic Well-Being)
Child poverty estimates (defined as the percent of children living on less than 50 percent of median disposable income, adjusted for family size and composition) for 36 economically advanced countries are available here. (see Figure 1b.)
What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator
See the KIDS COUNT Indicator Brief, Reducing the Child Poverty Rate. Available here.
Also see the list of evaluated programs under “Employment and Welfare” on the website of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, available here.
Families are considered to be in poverty if their pre-tax money income (that is, not including in-kind benefits such as food stamps and not including the Earned Income Tax Credit) is less than a money income threshold that varies by family size and composition. The thresholds are updated annually to reflect inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index. In 2011, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two related children under age 18 was $22,811, while the threshold of a family of three with two related children was $18,123.
Poverty thresholds for 1959 and beyond for various family configurations are available from the Census Bureau. (table 1)
Data for 2005-2011: U.S. Census Bureau. CPS Table Creator (online tool), available at: http://www.census.gov/cps/data/cpstablecreator.html
Data for 2001-2004: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Income, poverty and health insurance in the United States: detailed tables. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.
Data for 1998-2000: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.
Data for 1995-1997 for non-Hispanic whites, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.
All other data for 1960-1997: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2002). Trends in the well-being of America's children and youth 2001. Table ES 1.2.A. Author. Available at: http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/01trends/
Raw Data Sources
Current Population Survey’s Social and Economic Supplement (formerly called the March Supplement), a joint project of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Recommended Citation: Child Trends (2012). Children in Poverty. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/221.
Last Update: October 2012
1U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2011. Current Population Reports, Series P60-243, Figure 5. Available at: http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p60-243.pdf.
2Ibid, Appendix B.
3National Center for Children in Poverty. (1999). Poverty and brain development. Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. Available at: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pub_398.html
4Mather, M. & Adams, D. (2006). A KIDS COUNT/PRB report on Census 2000: The risk of negative child outcomes in low-income families. KIDS COUNT & Population Reference Bureau. Available at: http://www.aecf.org/upload/PublicationFiles/DA3622H1234.pdf
5Huffman, L. C., Mehlinger, S. L., & Kerivan, A. S. (2000). Risk factors for academic and behavioral problems at the beginning of school. The Child and Mental Health Foundation Agencies Network.
6Bradley, R.H. & Corwyn, R.F. (2002).Socioeconomic status and child development. Annual Review of Psychology,53, 371-99. Available at: http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135233?journalCode=psych
7Haveman, R., Wolfe, B., & Wilson, K. (1997). Childhood poverty and adolescent schooling and fertility outcomes: Reduced-form and structural estimates, in Duncan, G.J. & Brooks-Gunn, J. (eds.), Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Available at: http://www.russellsage.org/publications/books/0-87154-143-2
8Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne and Duncan, Greg J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Future of Children, Child and Poverty, 7(2). Available at: http://www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-info2825/pubs-info_show.htm?doc_id=72141
9Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S-M. (2012). Child poverty and its lasting consequence. The Urban Institute. Available at: http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412659-Child-Poverty-and-Its-Lasting-Consequence-Paper.pdf
10Bradley, R. H. & Corwyn, R.F . (2002). Op. cit.
11Dahl, G. & Lochner, L. (2005). The impact of family income on child achievement. Institute for Research on Poverty. Discussion Paper no. 1305-05. Available at: http://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/dps/pdfs/dp130505.pdf
12Huffman, L. C., Mehlinger, S. L., & Kerivan, A. S. (2000). Op. cit.
13Moore, K. A., & Redd, Z. (2002). Children in poverty: trends, consequences, and policy options. Child Trends. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/Files/PovertyRB.pdf
14Bradley, R. H. & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Op. cit.
15Hauser, R. M. & Sweeney, M. M. (1997). Does poverty in adolescence affect the life chances of high school graduates? in Duncan, G.J. & Brooks-Gunn, J. (eds.), Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Available at: http://www.russellsage.org/publications/books/0-87154-143-2
16Ratcliffe & McKernan. (2012). Op. cit.
17Melchior, M., Moffitt,T. E., Milne, B. J., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2007). Why do children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families suffer from poor health when they reach adulthood? A life-course study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 166(8), 966-974.
18Evans, G. W., & Schaumberg, M. A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. PNAS, 106(16), 6545-6549.
19U.S. Census Bureau. Historical Poverty Tables-People, Table 3. Available at:
20For discussion of the limitations of the federal poverty measure, see Blank, R. M. & Greenberg, M. H. (2008). Improving the measurement of poverty (discussion paper 2008-17). The Brookings Institution. Available at: http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2008/12/poverty-measurement-blank.
21Hispanics may be any race. Totals for whites do not include Hispanics.