Children in Working Poor Families

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In 2012, the proportion of poor children who had a family member who worked any time during the past year was 68 percent. This rate reached a high of 78 percent in 1999, on the heels of welfare reform, but has since fallen by 12 percent.

Importance

One of the major goals of the 1996 welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), was to move more poor families with children into the labor force. [1] Work can be an important step out of poverty, another important goal of welfare reform. Many low-income working parents and their children, however, remain poor even after meeting the work thresholds used in PRWORA (at least 20 hours per week for a single-parent family, and at least 35 hours per week for a two-parent family). [2]

There is no generally accepted definition of “working poor,” even though the term is widely used in discussions of policy.[3] For purposes of this indicator, working poor families are defined as families whose income is below the federal poverty level (in 2012, $23,283 for a family of four with two children), and living in families with at least one full- or part-time worker. We also examine the full-time, year-round working poor, who had at least one family member who worked 50 weeks in the last year, for 35 or more hours on a regular week, as well as those who did so and were “low-income”--that is, they made less than two times the federal poverty level.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women, younger workers, and families with children are more likely to be among the working poor, while men, older workers, and families without children are less likely. Aside from low earnings, the other major factors that keep workers living below the poverty threshold are periods of unemployment and involuntary part-time employment.[4]

Children in working poor families are substantially less likely to receive TANF (welfare) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) than poor children whose parents do not meet this work threshold. They are about equally likely to be covered by health insurance, a positive change from the mid-1990s when they were less likely to be covered. Working poor families with children are also somewhat more likely to own their homes than are other poor families with children, though they lag far behind their non-poor counterparts on this measure. [5]

A study using a somewhat different definition of “working poor” found that increased work effort was associated with better child outcomes. Between 1997 and 2004, the well-being of children in working poor families improved on 10 of 15 measures, whereas the well-being of children in non-working poor families improved on just five measures. In 2004, children in working poor families were faring better than children in non-working poor families across 12 of 17 well-being measures, even after accounting for other factors that may have distinguished these two groups.[6]

Trends

74_fig1Between 1995 and 1999, the percentage of poor children living in households with at least one worker rose from 67 to 78 percent, then fell to 70 percent in 2003. Workers include any person older than 15 who worked during the preceding calendar year, either for pay or profit, or without pay on a family-operated farm or business, at any time during the year, on a part-time or full-time basis. Between 2003 and 2007 the rate remained steady, before it fell to 67 percent in 2010. In 2011, the rate rose slightly, to 68 percent, where it remained in 2012. The percentage of poor children with at least one full-time, year-round worker peaked in 2000, at 37 percent, up from a 1997 low of 27 percent. After falling to 31 percent in 2003, the rate remained steady until 2007. Between 2007 and 2010, the rate of poor children with a full-time, year-round worker fell from 34 to 27 percent, followed by a slight uptick to 30 percent in 2012. (Figure 1) Contemporaneously, child poverty fell from 20 to 16 percent between 1995 and 2000, rose to 17 percent in 2005, and increased steadily between 2007 and 2011, from 18 to 22 percent, remaining steady in 2012.[7]

Similar trends were evident for the subgroup of children living in families with a single female householder, though fluctuations in this percentage (increases in the 1990s and decreases in the early 2000s) were greater, suggesting this group may be more sensitive to economic conditions. (Appendix 1)

Among all children, the percent living in poor families with at least one worker decreased between 1995 and 2002, from 14 to 12 percent. After remaining steady through 2006, this rate increased to 15 percent in 2012—the highest level ever recorded since 1995, when these data are first available. The percentage of children who are poor or low-income and have at least one full-time, year-round worker in their families remained steady over this time period. The percentage of children in full-time, year-round working poor families has fluctuated between five and six percent, and was at six percent in 2012 (also the highest level in recent years). The percentage in full-time, year-round low-income working families has fluctuated between 22 and 23 percent, and was at 23 percent in 2012. (Appendix 2)

Differences by Family Structure

74_fig2Among poor children in 2012, those in families headed by a single woman were less likely than those in married-couple families to have a family member who worked (59 versus 83 percent). Among poor children in families headed by a single male, 68 percent had a family member who worked. Patterns were similar when looking at full-time, year-round workers only: 19 percent of children in families headed by a single woman, 49 percent of children in married-couple families, and 29 percent of children in families headed by a single man, had a family member who worked full-time, year-round. (Figure 2)

Among all children, those in families headed by a single woman or man are much more likely to be in the “working poor” category than are those in families headed by a married couple: in 2013, 28 percent of children in families headed by a single woman and 17 percent headed by a single man, compared with nine percent among those in married-couple families. (Appendix 2) The gap, however, nearly closes when looking at the percent of children who have a full-time, year-round worker and are low-income (27, 30, and 21 percent, respectively, for those in single-mother, single-father, and married-couple families). (Appendix 2)

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[8]

74_fig3Among poor children, Hispanic and Asian children are more likely to have at least one person in their families who worked in the past year than are white and black children (74 and 72 percent, compared to 66 and 62 percent, respectively, in 2012). The gaps widen when considering children in families with full-time, year-round workers only, but the pattern is consistent. (Appendix 1)

Among all children, Hispanic and black children are the most likely to live in working poor families (25 and 23 percent, respectively, in 2012), followed by Asian children (10 percent), and white children (eight percent). Hispanic children are the most likely to be in poor families with a full-time, year-round worker, at 13 percent in 2012, followed by black children at nine percent. Five percent of Asian and three percent of white children fall into this category. (Figure 3)

State and Local Estimates

2011/12 state estimates for children (ages 0-17) living in households with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level where at least one parent is employed full-time are available through the National Survey for Children’s Health at the Data Resource Center on Child and Adolescent Health.

2008-2012 state-level estimates that use a different definition of working poor (less than 200 percent of the poverty line, and at least one parent who worked 50 or more weeks in the previous year) are available from the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

International Estimates

None available.

National Goals

None.

What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator

The Self Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse (SSRC) at the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation) has a large collection of literature on programs and methods to increase employment among the poor.

The following Child Trends fact sheets also address this issue:

Also, see Child Trends’ LINKS database (“Lifecourse Interventions to Nurture Kids Successfully”), for reviews of many rigorously evaluated programs, including the following which have been shown to be effective at increasing employment:

Related Indicators

Definition

Working poor families are defined as families whose income is below the official federal poverty level ($23,283 for a family of four with two children in 2012) and in which there was at least one worker in the family. A worker is defined as any person older than 15 who had any work experience during the preceding calendar year, either for pay or profit, or working without pay on a family-operated farm or business at any time during the year, on a part-time or full-time basis. Full-time, year-round workers are defined as those who worked at least 50 weeks in the past calendar year, and at least 35 hours in a regular week. Low-income is defined as having a family income less than two times the federal poverty level.

Data Sources

Data for 2002-2012: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: POV13, Related Children by Number of Working Family Members and Family Structure. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/2012/index.html.

Data for 1997-2001: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: table 17, Work Experience of Family Members by Poverty Status of Families. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.

Data for 1995: Child Trends calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement, Current Population Survey (CPS).

Raw Data Sources

March Current Population Survey (CPS)

http://www.census.gov/cps/

 

Appendix 1 - Among Poor Children,1 Percentage With at Least One Worker in the Family: Selected Years, 1995-2012

1995 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Any worker2 66.7 71.4 74.2 77.6 76.9 74.1 73.3 70.0 71.4 69.9 69.8 71.1 70.7 69.1 67.3 68.0 68.2
Race/Hispanic origin3
White 72.5 73.8 77.9 80.7 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Non-Hispanic white - - - - 80.3 75.0 74.4 74.3 73.6 70.3 68.6 69.1 69.7 68.2 67.7 65.6 66.4
Black 57.2 66.5 67.6 70.7 68.0 65.7 66.8 58.7 61.3 61.2 62.8 64.5 62.8 59.8 57.4 62.7 61.6
Asian - - - - - - 67.5 67.1 79.6 77.2 64.1 72.5 75.8 73.0 74.3 79.4 71.7
Hispanic 68.9 71.0 75.8 80.8 81.8 80.4 78.1 76.4 77.9 77.3 77.3 78.0 77.7 76.0 74.2 73.3 74.4
Family structure4
Married Couple 86.7 85.6 87.8 89.1 89.7 89.1 87.1 87.3 88.5 87.3 86.6 85.3 87.3 85.4 85.0 85.2 83.4
Female Householder, no spouse 54.3 62.3 65.7 70.6 68.3 64.2 63.7 59.1 59.8 59.5 60.7 63.2 60.4 58.6 55.9 57.9 58.7
Male Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 77.2 71.2 77.6 70.3 66.2 68.1 62.8 62.7 64.4 68.3 67.6
At least one full-time, year-round worker5 - 26.8 33.5 33.1 37.2 34.3 35.4 31.4 34.3 34.4 34.9 34.4 31.8 29.6 26.9 29.4 30.2
Race/Hispanic origin3
White - 31.2 38.3 37.6 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Non-Hispanic white - - - - 37.1 33.0 30.4 29.7 30.6 32.0 29.1 28.7 29.6 27.0 25.3 26.9 27.4
Black - 17.8 25.3 24.7 30.0 24.9 28.8 19.7 26.5 22.7 28.1 29.6 23.5 24.6 19.2 21.7 23.5
Asian - - - - - - 45.0 38.1 35.5 50.3 45.0 44.9 40.0 36.0 34.9 43.6 37.2
Hispanic - 35.7 41.8 43.7 44.8 45.2 46.8 44.3 46.9 47.4 46.6 43.5 39.8 36.2 33.4 36.3 38.5
Family structure4
Married Couple - 46.5 56.4 52.3 58.6 55.0 55.8 53.3 56.4 57.6 58.8 55.7 52.9 45.8 41.7 49.4 48.5
Female Householder, no spouse - 14.9 19.7 20.7 24.0 21.0 21.5 18.0 20.5 20.4 21.7 22.5 18.8 19.6 17.6 17.9 18.9
Male Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 38.6 28.7 31.5 34.2 31.4 31.8 22.6 20.4 22.7 27.6 29.1
1 Poor children are defined as children under age 18, who are related to the householder, and have a total family income less than the federal poverty level.

2 A worker is defined as any person older than 15 who had any work experience during the preceding calendar year, either for pay or profit, or working without pay on a family-operated farm or business at any time during the year, on a part-time or full-time basis.

3 Divisions by race exclude those of mixed race, although they are included in the total. Hispanics may be any race.

4 Family structure is based on the marital status of the householder or family head, and does not specify the child’s relationship to the householder. For instance, children living with single grandmothers are indistinguishable from children living with single mothers.

5 Full-time, year-round workers are defined as those who worked at least 50 weeks in the past calendar year, and at least 35 hours in a regular week.

Source: Data for 1995: Child Trends calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement, Current Population Survey (CPS). Data for 1997-2001: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: table 17, Work Experience of Family Members by Poverty Status of Families. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html. Data for 2002-2012: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: POV13, Related Children by Number of Working Family Members and Family Structure. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.

Appendix 2 - Among All Children1, Percentage Who are Poor or Low-Income and Have at Least One Worker in the Family: Selected Years, 1995-2012

1995 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Working Poor2 13.5 13.7 13.6 12.7 12.0 11.7 11.9 12.0 12.3 12.0 11.8 12.5 13.1 13.9 14.5 14.6 14.5
Race/Hispanic origin3
White 11.3 11.4 11.2 10.4 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Non-Hispanic white - - - - 7.0 6.7 6.7 6.9 7.3 6.7 6.5 6.7 7.0 7.6 7.9 7.8 7.8
Black 23.7 24.5 24.7 23.2 20.7 19.7 21.5 19.7 20.5 20.9 20.7 22.1 21.6 21.1 22.5 24.2 23.1
Asian - - - - - - 7.7 8.1 7.5 8.5 7.7 8.5 10.8 9.9 10.4 10.3 9.5
Hispanic 27.1 25.8 25.5 24.2 22.3 22.0 22.0 22.5 22.3 21.4 20.5 22.0 23.5 24.7 25.6 24.7 24.8
Family structure4
Married Couple 8.7 8.1 7.9 7.5 7.3 7.1 7.4 7.5 7.9 7.4 7.1 7.3 8.6 9.4 9.8 9.3 9.3
Female Householder, no spouse 27.3 30.5 30.3 29.6 27.2 25.2 25.2 24.7 25.0 25.4 25.6 27.2 26.3 26.0 26.2 16.9 27.7
Male Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 15.6 16.0 14.7 14.1 13.4 14.5 12.9 16.7 18.0 27.6 17.4
Full-time, year-round working poor5 - 5.1 6.1 5.4 5.8 5.4 5.8 5.4 5.9 5.9 5.9 6.1 5.9 6.0 5.8 6.3 6.4
Race/Hispanic origin3
White - 4.8 5.5 4.8 - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Non-Hispanic white - - - - 3.2 3.0 2.7 2.8 3.0 3.0 2.7 2.8 2.9 3.0 3.0 3.2 3.2
Black - 6.5 9.2 8.1 9.1 7.5 9.2 6.6 8.8 7.8 9.3 10.2 8.1 8.7 7.5 8.4 8.8
Asian - - - - - - 5.1 4.6 3.3 5.5 5.4 5.3 5.7 4.9 4.9 5.6 4.9
Hispanic - 13.0 14.1 13.1 12.2 12.4 13.2 13.0 13.4 13.1 12.4 12.3 12.1 11.8 11.5 12.2 12.8
Family structure4
Married Couple - 4.4 5.1 4.4 4.8 4.4 4.7 4.6 5.0 4.9 4.8 4.8 5.2 5.1 4.8 5.4 5.4
Female Householder, no spouse - 7.3 9.1 8.7 9.5 8.2 8.5 7.5 8.6 8.7 9.1 9.7 8.2 8.7 8.2 8.5 8.9
Male Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 7.8 6.4 6.0 6.8 6.4 6.8 4.6 5.4 6.4 6.8 7.5
1995 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Full-time, year-round working and "low-Income"6 - - - - - - 22.0 22.0 22.4 22.5 23.1 22.6 22.0 21.3 21.4 22.8 23.0
Race/Hispanic origin3
White - - - - - - 14.7 15.1 15.0 15.1 15.1 14.6 14.8 14.6 14.6 15.5 15.9
Non-Hispanic white - - - - - - 28.9 27.7 28.5 27.9 30.2 29.7 27.4 26.9 25.1 26.0 26.6
Black - - - - - - 21.5 18.7 19.3 19.7 17.0 19.4 18.8 18.0 20.2 21.4 19.3
Asian - - - - - - 41.2 40.3 41.5 41.0 41.4 39.6 37.5 34.6 34.7 37.8 38.3
Hispanic - - - - - - 14.7 15.1 15.0 15.1 15.1 14.6 14.8 14.6 14.6 15.5 15.9
Family structure4
Married Couple - - - - - - 19.6 20.0 20.5 20.5 20.5 19.8 20.2 19.5 19.8 21.2 20.7
Female Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 28.0 27.0 26.9 27.4 29.9 29.5 26.8 26.4 25.2 26.9 27.0
Male Householder, no spouse - - - - - - 29.3 26.6 28.1 27.2 25.6 26.9 24.5 21.5 23.7 26.1 30.4
1 Children are defined as children under age 18 who are related to the householder.

2 Working poor is defined as being in a family that has income below the federal poverty level and has at least one worker. A worker is defined as any person older than 15 who had any work experience during the preceding calendar year, either for pay or profit, or working without pay on a family-operated farm or business at any time during the year, on a part-time or full-time basis.

3 Divisions by race exclude those of mixed race, although they are included in the total. Hispanics may be any race.

4 Family structure is based on the marital status of the householder or family head, and does not specify the child’s relationship to the householder. For instance, children living with single grandmothers are indistinguishable from children living with single mothers.

5 Full-time, year-round working poor is defined as being in a family that has income below the federal poverty level and has at least one full-time, year-round worker.Full-time, year-round workers are defined as those who worked at least 50 weeks in the past calendar year, and at least 35 hours in a regular week.

6 low-income is defined as having a total family income below 200% of the federal poverty level.

Sources: Data for 1995: Child Trends calculations based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement, Current Population Survey (CPS). Data for 1997-2001: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: table 17, Work Experience of Family Members by Poverty Status of Families. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html. Data for 2002-2012: calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Poverty in the United States: detailed tables: POV13, Related Children by Number of Working Family Members and Family Structure. Available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/index.html.

 

Endnotes


[1]U.S. Congress, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Section 411 http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=104_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ193.104.pdf

[2]Parrott, S. and Sherman, A. (2006). TANF at 10: Program results are more mixed than often understood. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.cbpp.org/files/8-17-06tanf.pdf.

[3] The Census Bureau does not use the term "working poor."  For more information, see:http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/definitions.html

[4]U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2011). A profile of the working poor, 2009. Report 1027. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2009.pdf

[5]Wertheimer, R., Long, M., and Jager, J. (2002) Children in working poor families: Update and extensions. A report to the Foundation for Child Development. Washington, D.C.: Child Trends. http://www.childtrends.org/files/Child_Trends-2002_10_01_FR_WorkingPoor.pdf.

[6]Wertheimer, R., Moore, K. A., and Burkhauser, M. (September, 2008). The well-being of children in working poor and other families: 1997 and 2004. Child Trends Research Brief (#2008-33). Retrieved from: www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends-2008_09_29_RB_WorkingPoor.pdf

[7]See Child Trends Databank. (2014). Children in Poverty. Retrieved from http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=children-in-poverty.

[8]Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites in this report do not include Hispanics.

 

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2014). Children in working poor families. Available at: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=children-in-working-poor-families

 

Last updated: August 2014