2Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr-University Bochum, 44801 Bochum, Germany

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Single-parent families are at greater risk of economic hardship than two-parent families, largely because the latter have twice the earnings potential. But research indicates that marriage does not guarantee protection from economic insecurity. More than one in four children with married parents lives in a low-income family. In rural and suburban areas, the majority of low-income children have married parents. And among Latinos, more than half of children with married parents are low income. Moreover, most individuals who experience poverty as adults grew up in married-parent households.

Having immigrant parents also increases a child’s chances of living in a low-income family. More than 20 percent of this country’s children — about 16 million — have at least one foreign-born parent. Fifty-eight percent of children whose parents are immigrants are low-income, compared to 35 percent of children whose parents were born in the U.S.

Shawn Fremstad has a report at CAP, titled "Partnered But Poor," debunking the idea that marriage is a cure-all to poverty. The report mostly draws from analysis of the 2013 Current Population Survey done by the GAO (which you can find here). The main takeaway of the report is that:

Yet food now comprises only one-seventh of an average family’s expenses, while the costs of housing, child care, health care, and transportation have grown disproportionately. Most analysts agree that today’s poverty thresholds are too low. And although there is no consensus about what constitutes a minimum but decent standard of living in the U.S., research consistently shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs.

Failure to update the federal poverty level for changes in the cost of living means that people who are considered poor today by the official standard are worse off relative to everyone else than people considered poor when the poverty measure was established. The current federal poverty measure equals about 29 percent of median household income, whereas in the 1960s, the poverty level was nearly 50 percent of the median.

Parents need financial resources as well as human and social capital (basic life skills, education, social networks) to provide the experiences, resources, and services that are essential for children to thrive and to grow into healthy, productive adults — high-quality health care, adequate housing, stimulating early learning programs, good schools, money for books, and other enriching activities. Parents who face chronic economic hardship are much more likely than their more affluent peers to experience severe stress and depression — both of which are linked to poor social and emotional outcomes for children.

But the U.S. takes a different policy approach. Our nation does little to assist low-income working families unless they hit rock bottom. And then, such families are eligible only for means-tested benefits that tend to be highly stigmatized; most families who need help receive little or none. (One notable exception is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.)

To achieve a minimum but decent standard of living, families need more than material resources; they also need “human and social capital.” Human and social capital include education, basic life skills, and employment experience, as well as less tangible resources such as social networks and access to civic institutions. These non-material resources provide families with the means to get by, and ultimately, to get ahead. Human and social capital help families improve their earnings potential and accumulate assets, gain access to safe neighborhoods and high-quality services (such as medical care, schooling), and expand their networks and social connections.

The most commonly held stereotypes about poverty are false. Family poverty in the U.S. is typically depicted as a static, entrenched condition, characterized by large numbers of children, chronic unemployment, drugs, violence, and family turmoil. But the realities of poverty and economic hardship are very different.

All types of people live in poverty. Life changes such as unemployment, illness or family separation can happen to us all. Shifts in the cost of living, especially higher prices in essentials such as food and fuel, also affect most people. So poverty isn’t something that happens to others. It’s something that can happen to almost anyone.

The U.S. government measures poverty by a narrow income standard — this measure does not include material hardship (such as living in substandard housing) or debt, nor does it consider financial assets (such as savings or property). Developed more than 40 years ago, the official poverty measure is a specific dollar amount that varies by family size but is the same across the continental U.S..

Figure 10: Percentage of children in low-income families by region, 2011

Similarly, children living in rural areas are more likely to live in low-income families compared to those living in urban areas.

There are more than 72 million children under 18 years old in the United States.

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Yet food now comprises only one-seventh of an average family’s expenses, while the costs of housing, child care, health care, and transportation have grown disproportionately. Most analysts agree that today’s poverty thresholds are too low. And although there is no consensus about what constitutes a minimum but decent standard of living in the U.S., research consistently shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs.

3. Cauthen, N. K., & Fass, S. (2008). Measuring income and poverty in the United States. New York, NY: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health.

Given its wealth, the U.S. had unusually high rates of child poverty and income inequality, even prior to the current economic downturn. These conditions are not inevitable — they are a function both of the economy and government policy. In the late 1990s, for example, there was a dramatic decline in low-income rates, especially among the least well off families. The economy was strong and federal policy supports for low-wage workers with children — the Earned Income Tax Credit, public health insurance for children, and child care subsidies — were greatly expanded. In the current economic downturn, it is expected that the number of poor children will increase by millions.

Research also indicates that economic inequality in America has been on the rise since the 1970s. Income inequality has reached historic levels — the income share of the top 1 percent of earners is at its highest level since 1929. Between 1979 and 2006, real after-tax incomes rose by 256 percent for the top 1 percent of households, compared to 21 percent and 11 percent for households in the middle and bottom fifth (respectively).

1WZB Berlin Social Science Center, 10785 Berlin, Germany; ue.bzw@il.gnohgnaij (J.L.); ue.bzw@gnos.enna (A.Y.S.)

Even air conditioning does more than provide comfort — in hot weather, it increases children’s concentration in school and improves the health of children, the elderly, and the chronically ill. Hot weather related deaths in the US exceed those caused by all weather-related events combined.

This fact sheet is part of the National Center for Children in Poverty’s demographic fact sheet series and is updated annually. However, estimates published in this year’s fact sheet are not directly comparable with earlier years, as the data analyzed have changed from the Current Population Survey (used in previous years) to the American Community Survey (ACS). Unless otherwise noted, analysis of the 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) was conducted by Sophia Addy of NCCP. Yumiko Aratani provided feedback that contributed to the analysis. Estimates include children living in households with at least one parent and most children living apart from both parents (for example, children being raised by grandparents). Children living independently, living with a spouse, or in group quarters are excluded from these data. Children ages 14 and under living with only unrelated adults were not included because data on their income status were not available. Among children who do not live with at least one parent, parental characteristics are those of the householder and/or the householder’s spouse. Special thanks to Morris Ardoin, Amy Palmisano, and Telly Valdellon.

Although families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty level are not officially classified as poor, many face material hardships and financial pressures similar to families with incomes below the poverty level. Missed rent payments, utility shut offs, inadequate access to health care, unstable child care arrangements, and running out of food are not uncommon for such families.

The percentage of all children under 18 years old in low-income families surpasses that of adults. In addition, children are over twice as likely as adults 65 years and older to live in poor families.

The current poverty measure was established in the 1960s and is now widely acknowledged to be outdated. It was based on research indicating that families spent about one-third of their incomes on food — the official poverty level was set by multiplying food costs by three. Since then, the same figures have been updated annually for inflation but have otherwise remained unchanged.

Poverty And Family

The current poverty measure was established in the 1960s and is now widely acknowledged to be outdated. It was based on research indicating that families spent about one-third of their incomes on food — the official poverty level was set by multiplying food costs by three. Since then, the same figures have been updated annually for inflation but have otherwise remained unchanged.

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For families to succeed economically, we need an economy that works for all — one that provides workers with sufficient earnings to provide for a family. Specific policy strategies include strengthening the bargaining power of workers, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. We also need to help workers get the training and education they need to succeed in a changing workforce. Dealing with low wages is necessary but not sufficient. Low- and middle-income families alike need relief from the high costs of health insurance and housing.

The experience of severe or chronic economic hardship limits children’s potential and hinders our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy. American students, on average, rank behind students in other industrialized nations, particularly in their understanding of math and science. Analysts warn that America’s ability to compete globally will be severely hindered if many of our children are not as academically prepared as their peers in other nations.

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Figure 2: Children living in low-income and poor families, by age group, 2007

As a nation, we also need to make it possible for adults to be both good workers and good parents, which requires greater workplace flexibility and paid time off. Workers need paid sick time, and parents need time off to tend to a sick child or talk to a child’s teacher. Currently, three in four low-wage workers have no paid sick days.

The U.S. government measures poverty by a narrow income standard — this measure does not include material hardship (such as living in substandard housing) or debt, nor does it consider financial assets (such as savings or property). Developed more than 40 years ago, the official poverty measure is a specific dollar amount that varies by family size but is the same across the continental U.S..

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These are only some of the policies needed to reduce economic hardship, strengthen families, and provide a brighter future for today’s — and tomorrow’s — children. With the right leadership, a strong national commitment, and good policy, it’s all possible.