Child Poverty Increased Nationally During COVID, Especially Among Latino and Black Children
Child poverty rates have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among Latino and Black children and among children in female-headed families, according to a new Child Trends analysis of recently released national data from the Current Population Survey. These newly released data provide a first nationally representative look at how the pandemic has changed child poverty. We find that child poverty increased by an average of 1.8 percentage points—from 15.7 percent in 2019 to 17.5 percent in 2020—based on families’ reports in 2020 and 2021. This translates to roughly 12.5 million children living in poverty in 2020, or 1.2 million more than in 2019.
These national estimates mask the variation in economic circumstances experienced across child subgroups: Poverty rates among Latino children rose by 4.2 percentage points, from 23.0 percent to 27.3 percent, and by 2.8 percentage points among Black children, from 26.4 percent to 29.2 percent (see Figure 1). This amounts to an increase of approximately 700,000 more Latino children and 268,000 more Black children living in poverty in 2020, relative to 2019. In contrast, the rates of White and Asian children in poverty remained relatively stable. In addition, children in female-headed families also saw a large increase in the poverty rate, by 4.1 percentage points, from 33.4 percent to 37.4 percent (see Figure 2)—a total increase of about 642,000 more children in female-headed families living in poverty. Not only do these increases reverse the downward trend in child poverty rates seen in the years leading up to the pandemic, but the pandemic also widened differences by race/ethnicity and family structure.
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has been widespread, with many families experiencing multiple, co-occurring material and economic hardships that not only create short-term distress but also have implications for children’s longer-term well-being and development. These hardships—which include, but are not limited to, loss of jobs and wages, health problems, food insecurity, housing instability, and disruptions to child care and schooling—have disproportionately fallen on female-headed families and Latino and Black families. Additionally, Latino and Black families face structural racism and systemic barriers in education, housing, employment, health care, and wealth accumulation, making it harder for them to weather and recover from the recession.
Our estimates are based on family income in the past 12 months, as reported in answers to one question on the basic monthly Current Population Survey (CPS). Our approach (see methodology below) differs from the more robust official poverty measure, which uses data from multiple income questions; however, these data will not be available until Fall 2021. Our analysis highlights the elevated poverty rate among children, as close to real-time as possible, allowing policymakers to consider both emergency responses and longer-term policies for targeting resources, supporting families, and investing in children for our future economy—especially those children who have been harmed most by the pandemic.
Our estimates join other evidence suggesting that economic disparities have increased among children during the pandemic. Other efforts to measure poverty during the pandemic include one study that estimates annual poverty rates using CPS monthly data from the initial months of the pandemic and another that imputes monthly poverty rates, with both adjusting for major cash transfers such as stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. Our estimates, in comparison, are based on families’ reports of income from the first year of the pandemic and do not explicitly examine how government programs may have impacted child poverty.
We drew data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) basic monthly data files from calendar years 2019 to 2021. The basic monthly CPS first collects basic demographic and labor force information from a nationally representative sample of households for four consecutive months; it then lets the participants out of the sample for eight months before following them again for another four months (4-8-4). For respondents in their first and fifth month of the survey, the monthly CPS conducts in-person interviews asking one global question on family income in the past 12 months, after asking about their work-related activities. Respondents are instructed to include money from jobs; net income from business, farm, or rent; pensions; dividends; interest; Social Security payments; and any other income received by members of their family ages 15 and older. Respondents are offered 16 income brackets to choose from (less than $5,000; then an interval of $2,500 for income from $5,000 – $15,000; an interval of $5,000 for income from $15,000 – $40,000; an interval of $10,000 for income from $40,000 – $60,000; $60,000 – $74,999; $75,000 – $99,999; $100,000 – $149,999; and $150,000 or more).
To examine poverty during the pandemic, we began our analysis with the latest available data (April 2021). Based on the 4-8-4 structure, half of all respondents in this month were interviewed for the first time a year ago (April 2020). This cohort had a high survey nonresponse rate due to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, which impacted field data collection efforts. Respondents in this cohort were more economically advantaged than respondents in other time periods. Therefore, we use data collected during the first quarter of 2021 (January – March) to capture annual family income from 2020 during the pandemic (given that respondents were asked to report income for the past 12 months). Our poverty estimates are distinct from the official poverty rates based on the CPS Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), which collects more data on income sources in the past calendar year but is not expected to be available until September 2021. However, the reference period in the CPS monthly data we examine is very close to the timeframe used in ASEC. By comparing estimates from the same quarter across years, we exclude changes due to seasonal fluctuations.
We limit our analytic sample to only members of the householder’s family (defined by birth, adoption, and marriage) and focus on children under age 18. We summarize poverty rates by family structure of the householder (married versus unmarried, or married without a spouse present) and by race/ethnicity of the child. Hispanic children are defined as children with a Hispanic, Latino, and/or Spanish origin of any race; non-Hispanic children are grouped by race—Black/African American, Asian, and White children with a single race—such that these racial/ethnic categories are mutually exclusive for comparison purposes. Since the income question is asked of one quarter of the sample, we use only one quarter of the basic monthly data; this can affect estimates for subgroups. In particular, the sample sizes for Asian and Black children are small, roughly 900 and 1,900 per quarter, respectively, so the estimates for these groups may be less reliable due to larger standard errors.
To determine poverty status, we compared the lower and upper limits of the reported income range with the official poverty threshold for each combination of family size, age of householder, and number of children for the corresponding year (for example, the 2020 threshold for annual income reported in the first quarter of 2021). Poverty status cannot be determined for 3.7 percent of the analytic sample because the official poverty threshold is between the lower and upper bounds of the income bracket. For these cases, we impute poverty status based on other information using observations from the same quarter, including householder age, race, female-headed status, residence with children under age 6, the householder’s and spouse’s citizenship and nativity status, education level, employment status, whether the householder’s or spouses’ main job was in a low-wage industry, region and metropolitan status, and the month of the interview (first or fifth). We weight estimates using the provided person final weight.
 Before rounding to the tenth decimal place, the rates of Latino child poverty in 2019 and 2020 were 23.047% and 27.283%, respectively, resulting in a difference of 4.236 percentage points.
 Our estimates present average poverty rates for each subgroup and may mask heterogeneity within each of these subgroups. For example, the estimate for Asian children likely masks the wide variation seen within this subgroup.
 Before rounding to the tenth decimal place, poverty rates among children in female-headed families in 2019 and 2020 were 33.363% and 37.426%, respectively, for a difference of about 4.063 percentage points.