In 2010, more than 1 in 5 children (22 percent) lived in families with incomes below the poverty line, the highest level since 1993; by 2015, this had fallen to 20 percent. Poverty levels among Black and Hispanic children, children living in single-mother families, and children under five are higher.
Since the mid-1970s, children under 18 have been much more likely than adults to be poor. Being raised in poverty (defined as income of $24,036 or less in 2015, for a family of four with two children)  places children at higher risk for a wide range of problems. Research indicates that poor children are disproportionately exposed to factors that may impair brain development  and affect cognitive, social, and emotional functioning. 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, in infancy, to a more restricted vocabulary).,,
While determining causality is complex in this context, experiencing poverty is also related to increased risks for 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. 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.,,
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., Poor children are also more likely than other children to have externalizing and other behavior problems, or emotional problems,, and are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors during adolescence. Finally, growing up in poverty is associated with lower occupational status and lower wages,, poorer health, and deficits in working memory in adulthood.
Reporting on child poverty rates at a single point in time gives an under-estimate of its deleterious effects, since research shows that persistent poverty, as well as poverty experienced in the childhood’s early years, is most detrimental to development. Nearly 4 in 10 children are poor for 1 or more years before they reach age 18—nearly double the point-in-time estimate. More than 1 in 10 are poor for half or more of their childhood years.
After reaching 23 percent in 1993—the highest rate since 1964—child poverty fell to 16 percent in 1999, then rose slowly through 2004, 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 declined between 2010 and 2015, to 20 percent. A small uptick in 2014 to 21 percent may be attributed to a change in income reporting: comparable numbers from 2013 show a rate of 22 percent. (Figure 1)
Many researchers and advocates use 200 percent or less of the poverty threshold to identify families with “low-income”. In 2015, more than 4 in 10 children (42 percent) lived in low-income families. Nine percent of children under age 18 lived in families in deep poverty (below 50 percent of the poverty threshold). All these measures of poverty have followed similar patterns over time. (Figure 1)
The Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) is an alternative measure that takes into account the effects of taxes and in-kind transfers (such as SNAP benefits), regional differences in cost of living, complex family structures, and costs associated with work. Between 2009 and 2015, the SPM yielded a child poverty rate between 16 and 17 percent.
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin
Hispanic and black children are much more likely to live in poor families than are non-Hispanic white and Asian children. In 2015, 12 percent of both non-Hispanic white and Asian children were poor, compared with 29 percent of Hispanic children, and 33 percent of black children. In the same year, Hispanics and blacks were also more likely than non-Hispanic whites and Asians to live in low-income families (61 percent each, versus 29 and 27 percent, respectively). Black children were more likely than Hispanic children to be in deep poverty (16 and 12 percent, respectively), and both were more likely to be in deep poverty than white or Asian children (6 percent, each). (Figure 2)
Differences by Age
Children under 5 are more likely than children 5 to 17 to live below the poverty line (21 and 19 percent, respectively, in 2015). (Appendix 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 2015, 43 percent of children living in single-mother families were poor, compared with 10 percent of children living in married-couple families. The same pattern holds for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian children. For example, almost half of black and Hispanic children in single-mother families (46.2 and 48.8 percent) were poor in 2015, although this is a considerable reduction from the previous year (52.7 and 53.3 percent). However, only 11 percent of black children, and 20 percent of Hispanic children, in married-couple families were poor in 2015. (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 2008. The difference grew between 2008 and 2011, but has since leveled off. (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 three-year-average estimates for areas with 20,000 or more people.
Additionally, 2000-2015 state estimates for children in poverty (100 percent), children in deep 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.
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 from UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Center. (see Figure 1b.)
What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator
The following briefs review interventions to reduce child poverty:
- Children in Poverty: Trends, Consequences, and Policy Options from Child Trends.
- Reducing the Child Poverty Rate from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
- Magnuson, K. (2013). Reducing the effects of poverty through early childhood interventions. Fast Focus from the Institute for Research on Poverty.
- Akee, R., Simeonova, R. , Costello, E. J., & Copeland, W. (2015). How does household income affect child personality traits and behaviors? National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper.
Also see the list of evaluated programs under “Employment and Welfare” on the website of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.
- Children in Working Poor Families
- Secure Parental Employment
- Child Recipients of Welfare
- Long-Term Welfare Dependence
- Receipt of SNAP Benefits (Food Stamps)
- Food Insecurity
- Homeless Children and Youth
- Adverse Experiences
- Long-Term Poverty (archived)
Families are considered to be in poverty if their pre-tax money income (that is, not including in-kind benefits such as SNAP benefits (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 2015, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two related children under age 18 was $24,036, while the threshold of a family of three with two related children was $19,078. The thresholds are determined by estimating the cost of a minimally adequate diet for a family of a given configuration and size, multiplied by three.
Poverty thresholds for 1959 and beyond for various family configurations are available here. (Table 1)
Because the survey asks about income in the previous year, data on each year were collected in March of the following year. For instance, data on 2015 poverty were collected in March 2016.
In 2014, questions related to income were changed slightly, and this reduces comparability with previous data. More detail on this change is available here.
Data for 2002-2015 U.S. Census Bureau. CPS Table Creator (online tool), available at: http://www.census.gov/cps/data/cpstablecreator.html
Data for 2001: 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/
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/
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/
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
The 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.
Appendix 1 – Percentage of Children in the United States Under Age 18 Living Below Selected Poverty Thresholds,1 by Race/Hispanic Origin: Selected Years, 1960-2015
|Under 50% of FPL1||–||–||5.0||7.0||8.0||8.8||8.5||6.4||7.7||7.6||7.7||7.5||7.8||8.5||9.3||9.9||9.8||9.7||8.8||9.3||8.9|
|Race/ Hispanic origin2|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||–||–||–||–||–||–||5.7||5.0||5.5||4.1||4.3||5.0||4.8||7.3||7.5||6.5||5.1||6.8||4.5||6.1||5.8|
|Under 100% of FPL1||26.9||15.1||17.1||18.3||20.7||20.6||20.8||16.2||17.6||17.8||17.6||17.4||18.0||19.0||20.7||22.0||21.9||21.8||19.9||21.1||19.7|
|Race/ Hispanic origin2|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||–||–||–||–||–||17.6||19.5||12.7||12.7||10.1||11.0||12.5||12.5||15.6||14.5||15.6||13.7||14.7||11.1||14.4||12.8|
|Under 150% of FPL1||–||–||30.0||29.0||32.0||31.4||32.2||26.8||28.6||28.2||28.2||28.6||29.3||30.5||32.0||33.4||34.0||33.3||32.1||32.6||31.4|
|Race/ Hispanic origin2|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||–||–||–||–||–||–||29.5||23.0||21.2||19.7||19.8||20.7||22.3||24.0||24.7||23.5||25.0||24.2||22.6||24.1||21.2|
|Under 200% of FPL1||–||–||43.0||42.0||43.0||42.4||43.3||37.4||39.1||39.3||38.9||39.0||39.2||40.6||42.2||43.7||44.3||43.8||42.6||42.9||41.8|
|Race/ Hispanic origin2|
|Asian or Pacific Islander||–||–||–||–||–||–||40.5||32.0||29.7||30.0||28.8||27.4||30.2||32.5||32.6||35.3||35.3||34.1||32.6||32.6||27.8|
|“-“ indicates data not available
1The federal poverty level (abbreviated FPL) is based on pre-tax money income and does not include noncash benefits (such as Food Stamps) or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Poverty thresholds reflect family size and composition and are adjusted each year using the annual average Consumer Price Index (CPI) level. The average poverty threshold was $24,036 in 2015 for a family of four with two children. The levels shown here are derived from the ratio of the family’s income to the family’s poverty threshold in that year.
2Estimates by race for 2002 and later years have been revised to reflect the new OMB race definitions, and include only those who are identified with a single race.
Sources: 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/. 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/ 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/. Data for 2001: 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.html. Data for 2002-2015: U.S. Census Bureau. CPS Table Creator (online tool), available at: http://www.census.gov/cps/data/cpstablecreator.html
Appendix 2 – Percentage of Related Children1 in the United States Living Below the Poverty Line,2 By Family Type and Race/Hispanic Origin: Selected Years, 1960-2015
|All Related Children||26.5||14.9||16.8||17.9||20.1||19.9||20.2||15.6||17.6||17.8||17.6||17.4||18.0||19.0||20.7||22.0||21.9||21.8||19.9||21.1||19.7|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||17||18.6||12.5||12.7||10.1||11.0||12.5||12.5||15.6||14.5||15.6||13.7||14.7||11.1||14.4||12.8|
|Related children under age 54||–||17||18||20||23||23||24||17||20.3||20.5||20.4||20.7||21.2||22.2||24.5||25.9||25.1||25.1||22.5||23.4||21.4|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||21.6||12||8.5||8.3||9.3||8.0||10.1||14.4||14.8||16.7||13.0||14.6||11.4||16.3||11.8|
|Related children ages 5-174||–||14||16||17||19||18||18||15||16.6||16.8||16.5||16.1||16.8||17.7||19.2||20.6||20.7||20.6||19.0||20.1||19.1|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||16.9||15||14.3||10.8||11.7||14.3||13.5||16.1||14.5||15.2||14.0||14.7||11.0||13.6||13.1|
|Children in Married-Couple Families||–||–||–||–||–||10||10||8||8.6||9.0||8.5||8.2||8.6||9.9||11.1||11.6||11.0||11.2||9.5||10.6||9.8|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||14.8||12||8.7||7.9||8.9||9.1||9.8||13.3||11.6||11.2||9.5||10.7||7.8||9.9||9.5|
|Related children under age 54||–||–||–||–||–||12||11||9||9.7||10.2||9.8||9.7||9.6||11.2||13.4||13.3||12.2||12.6||10.4||11.4||10.0|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||15.2||9||6.6||6.3||8.4||5.4||8.0||11.9||12.7||13.1||10.5||11.2||7.3||11.3||9.1|
|Related children ages 5-174||–||–||–||–||–||10||9||8||8.2||8.5||7.9||7.6||8.2||9.4||10.1||11.0||10.5||10.6||9.2||10.3||9.7|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||14.6||13||9.5||8.6||9.2||10.7||10.7||13.9||11.1||10.4||9.1||10.5||8.0||9.3||9.7|
|Children in Single-Mother Families||68.4||58.7||52.7||50.8||53.6||53.4||50.3||40.1||42.1||42.4||43.1||42.4||43.0||43.9||45.1||47.1||48.0||47.6||46.1||46.4||43.0|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||42.4||32||37.2||20.0||26.5||35.7||33.3||29.7||29.4||40.5||35.7||35.1||29.1||36.4||29.0|
|Related children under age 54||–||64||62||65||66||66||62||47||53.8||54.1||54.2||53.9||54.8||55.3||55.7||59.2||58.5||57.6||56.2||55.5||50.5|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||67.1||40||29.1||19.4||19.8||40.3||36.4||33.8||30.6||52.3||35.5||39.7||46.9||43.0||37.8|
|Related children ages 5-174||–||49||49||46||48||47||45||37||38.4||38.6||39.4||38.4||38.8||39.7||41.2||43.0||44.3||44.2||42.7||43.2||40.4|
|Asian or Pacific Islander3||–||–||–||–||–||–||31.5||29||39.2||20.1||28.4||34.6||32.5||28.5||29.2||37.0||35.8||33.9||24.8||33.7||27.2|
“-“ indicates data not available
1 Related children include biological children, stepchildren, and adopted children of the householder and all other children in the household related to the householder (or reference person) by blood, marriage, or adoption.
2 The federal poverty level (abbreviated FPL) is based on pre-tax money income and does not include noncash benefits (such as Food Stamps) or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Poverty thresholds reflect family size and composition and are adjusted each year using the annual average Consumer Price Index (CPI) level. The average poverty threshold was $24,036 in 2015 for a family of four with two children. The levels shown here are derived from the ratio of the family’s income to the family’s poverty threshold in that year.
3 Estimates by race for 2002 and later years have been revised to reflect the new OMB race definitions, and include only those who are identified with a single race.
4 The age categories for data prior to 2002 are “Related children under the age of 6” and “Related children ages 6-17.”
Sources: Data for 1995-1997 for non-Hispanic whites and Asian and Pacific Islanders: 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/. 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/ 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/. Data for 2001: 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.html. Data for 2002-2015: U.S. Census Bureau. CPS Table Creator (online tool), available at: http://www.census.gov/cps/data/cpstablecreator.html
Ibid, Appendix B.
Hair, N. L., Hanson, J. L., Wolfe, B. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2015). Association of child poverty, brain development, and academic achievement. JAMA Pediatrics, published online July 20, 2015.
National Center for Children in Poverty. (1999). Poverty and brain development. Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. Available at: http://www.nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_398.pdf
Mather, 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
Huffman, 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.
Bradley, 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
Haveman, 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: https://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/07_02_03.pdf
Brooks-Gunn, J., & Duncan, G. J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Future of Children, Child and Poverty, 7(2). Retrieved from: http://www.futureofchildren.org/pubs-info2825/pubs-info_show.htm?doc_id=72141
Ratcliffe, 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
Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R.F . (2002). Op. cit.
Dahl, 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
Huffman, L. C., Mehlinger, S. L., & Kerivan, A. S. (2000). Op. cit.
Moore, K. A., & Redd, Z. (2002). Children in poverty: trends, consequences, and policy options. Child Trends. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/PovertyRB.pdf
Bradley, R. H., & Corwyn, R. F. (2002). Op. cit.
Hauser, 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.learningace.com/doc/5729682/f9c101849555f6013cbfe428b4361a19/hauser-sweeney_does-poverty-in-adolescence-affect-the-life-chances-of-high-school-graduates
Ratcliffe, C., & McKernan, S. M. (2012). Op. cit.
Melchior, 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.
Evans, G. W., & Schaumberg, M. A. (2009). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. PNAS, 106(16), 6545-6549.
Duncan, G. J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (Eds.). (1997). Consequences of growing up poor. NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
Ratcliffe, C. (2015). Child poverty and adult success. Urban Institute. Available at http://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/alfresco/publication-pdfs/2000369-Child-Poverty-and-Adult-Success.pdf
DeNavas-Walt, C., & Proctor, B. D. (2014). Income and poverty in the United States: 2013. Current Population Reports, Series P60-249, Available at: http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/demo/p60-249.pdf
For 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.
Renwick, T., & Fox, L. (2016). The Supplemental Poverty Measure: 2015. Current Population Reports, Series P60-258, Table 5a. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p60-258.pdf
Hispanics may be any race. Estimates for whites in this report do not include Hispanics.
Child Trends Databank. (2016). Children in poverty. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=children-in-povertyLast updated: December 2016