New report explains unprecedented decline in child poverty

September 11, 2022

A new Child Trends report by Dana Thomson and Renee Ryberg, Lessons From a Historic Decline in Child Poverty, finds that the social safety net was responsible for much of the historic 59 percent decline in child poverty from 1993 to 2019. The social safety net cut child poverty by 9 percent in 1993 and by 44 percent in 2019, tripling the number of children protected from poverty. In addition to the safety net, lower unemployment rates, increases in single mothers’ labor force participation, and increases in state minimum wages explained about one third of the decline in child poverty over this time. 

Thomson and Ryberg sought to learn 1) what factors led to this historic decline in child poverty, 2) whether all groups of children experienced a similar decline, and 3) who the social safety net helped and who it left behind. The report found that

  • Lower unemployment rates, increases in single mothers’ labor force participation, and increases in state minimum wages explained about 33 percent of the overall decline in child poverty from 1993 to 2019, but healthy economic conditions alone were not sufficient to protect children from poverty. 
  • While demographic shifts as a whole did not contribute to the decline in child poverty, they were associated with about 43 percent of the decline in child deep poverty from 1993 to 2019. 
  • The social safety net was responsible for much of the decline in child poverty from 1993 to 2019, cutting poverty by 9 percent in 1993 and 44 percent in 2019—tripling the number of children protected from poverty. 
  • While the social safety net’s role at reducing child poverty grew considerably over the last quarter century, the United States has made little progress in strengthening the safety net for children who have the least resources—specifically those in deep poverty. The social safety net reduced deep poverty among children by about two thirds in both 1993 and 2019. 
  • From 1993 to 2019, poverty rates declined—and declined at similar rates—for nearly all subgroups of children. This means that disparities by parental nativity, race and ethnicity, and family structure persisted. 
  • The role of the social safety net in reducing child poverty grew from 1993 to 2019 for nearly every subgroup. However, the social safety net played a smaller role in reducing poverty for some groups of children—specifically for children in immigrant families, Hispanic children, Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children, and children without stably employed parents. 

“This decline in child poverty is unprecedented,” said co-lead researcher Renee Ryberg. “Our study of what worked and didn’t work—and for whom—can help us learn from the past to guide policymakers in sustaining this progress.”  

“This quarter-century decline in child poverty is a remarkable success story, but there are important caveats,” said Dana Thomson, co-lead researcher on the study. “Black and Hispanic children and children living with single parents are still three times as likely to experience poverty as their peers. Policymakers must reduce systemic barriers to stable employment and structure safety net programs so they support all children equitably.” 

Thomson and Ryberg offer policymakers the following recommendations to maintain and continue this decline: 

  • Recraft social safety net programs to prioritize child needs and determine eligibility based on child needs, rather than parent characteristics.  
  • Ease administrative barriers to accessing the social safety net for eligible families to reduce child poverty, deep poverty, and disparities between subgroups of children.   
  • Support stable parental employment and more robust female labor force participation with fair labor markets, higher minimum wages, and affordable, accessible child care.  
  • Maintain low teen birth rates by increasing public investment in evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention strategies and safeguarding adolescents’ access to safe abortion.  
  • Promote the economic, social, and caregiving benefits that families bring to children and their parents, and reform policies that undermine parents’ role in children’s lives.  

The comprehensive report analyzes, in detail, an abundance of data regarding the following: 

  • How the following economic and demographic trends did (or did not) impact the decline in child poverty:  
    • Unemployment rates 
    • Real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita 
    • Median wages 
    • Minimum wages 
    • Single mother labor force participation rates 
    • The share of children living with two parents 
    • The share of adults with a high school degree or higher 
    • Teen birth rates 
    • The share of children in immigrant families 
    • The racial/ethnic distribution of the child population 
  • The roles of the following individual social safety net programs in protecting children from poverty: 
    • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) 
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) 
    • Social Security 
    • Housing assistance 
    • Unemployment insurance 
    • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) 
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)  
    • National School Lunch Program 
    • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) 
    • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) 
  • How child poverty has changed based on the following characteristics of children and their families: 
    • Parental nativity 
    • Child race/ethnicity 
    • Family structure 
    • Parental employment stability 

To complement the report, Child Trends also released State-level Data for Understanding Child Poverty today, an interactive state data resource that presents states’ child poverty rates, economic indicators, demographic indicators, and state-specific percentage point declines in poverty due to the social safety net. 

For this report, the researchers analyzed 26 years of data from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS) and from Columbia University’s Historical SPM Data.   

Unrestricted grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and MacKenzie Scott to Child Trends supported this in-depth study of child poverty.  

Dana Thomson’s areas of expertise include child well-being and the ways in which poverty and adversity impact child development. Renee Ryberg’s areas of expertise include creating equitable environments to help young people thrive through their educational careers and into adulthood. Thomson and Ryberg are co-lead authors. Contributing authors are Kristen Harper, Katherine Paschall, James Fuller, Jody Franklin, and Lina Guzman

Thomson, D., Ryberg, R., Harper, K., Fuller, J., Paschall, K., Franklin, J., & Guzman, L. (2022). Lessons From a Historic Decline in Child Poverty. Child Trends.