A recent Child Trends report explores factors that led to an unprecedented reduction in child poverty in the United States over the past quarter century. This brief complements that report with a discussion of how reducing poverty among our youngest children requires that we consider their unique needs and circumstances.
Child Trends’ report, Lessons From a Historic Decline in Child Poverty, tells an important story about the historic 59 percent decline in child poverty seen in the United States over the last quarter century. Child Trends’ report examined the various economic, demographic, and policy factors that led to the decline in poverty among children from birth to age 18. However, poverty is likely to be particularly harmful to our youngest children, who need access to certain resources during critical stages of early child development.
In 2021, 18 percent of children from birth to age 5 in the United States lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Young children develop at an accelerated rate, learning and growing faster than at any other period in their lives. To fuel that growth, they need stable and loving families and caregivers; positive learning experiences; and access to food, shelter, and high-quality physical and mental health resources. These cornerstones of development are compromised for children living in poverty. Families in poverty may experience chronic stress, limited access to learning experiences and health services, and challenges to securing nutritional food and safe housing. These factors can have long-term impacts on the healthy development of young children, which have cascading and cumulative effects on their ongoing development. The earlier a child’s exposure to poverty, the greater the developmental consequences.
Approaches to mitigating poverty for young children should also consider that young children of color—all racial and ethnic groups who are not White, and who constitute just over half of U.S. infants and toddlers in 2022—disproportionately experience poverty due to historical and structural inequities. Due to this history of racism, many of these families face systemic obstacles in connecting to employment opportunities and gaining generational wealth; many are not offered the same opportunities or pay for employment, or encounter discrimination and legal barriers that block their access to homeownership and housing stability. The rates of poverty for Native American, Black, and Hispanic infants and toddlers are all higher than the national average, with Native American and Black infant and toddler poverty rates approximately twice as high. These disparities and the historical context and systemic conditions that drive them must be addressed to lift all young children out of poverty.
In this brief, we complement the Child Trends report with a few thoughts on the needs of the youngest children living in poverty, and on how policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can consider these needs in designing and implementing anti-poverty efforts.
This brief is informed by the insights and reflections of Child Trends staff with a diverse set of research and policy expertise: Sara Amadon, Carlise King, Chrishana Lloyd, Katherine Paschall, Renee Ryberg, Dana Thomson, and Kathryn Tout.
Decreases in unemployment rates and increases in single mothers’ labor force participation are associated with declines in child poverty. Nationally, however, there is no universal access to paid family leave or paid sick leave, which hinders families’ connections to employment and workforce development. Without these supports, it is difficult or impossible for parents of young children to meet their families’ health care needs while also fulfilling work responsibilities. However, only 10 states have paid family leave policies and only 14 require that employers cover sick days when a child is ill. For families experiencing poverty, paid family and medical leave is even more inaccessible: As many as 93 percent of low-wage workers have no access to paid family leave.
Access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) is another key strategy for supporting parents’ access to work, education, and stable employment. However, a myriad of challenges make ECE inaccessible for families, all of which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In considering access to ECE, we must look beyond supply to also consider the complex care needs of families with young children. Access means that parents, with reasonable effort and affordability, can enroll their child in an arrangement that supports the child’s development and meets the parents’ needs. The increasingly high cost of ECE is a major obstacle for access, though. The patchwork of local, state, and federal funds used to fund ECE are not sufficient to address the fact that families cannot afford to pay more and providers cannot afford to be paid less. Parents’ work schedules can also pose challenges to accessing care, including the need for care delivered at nonstandard hours—an issue that tends to be more prevalent for low-income workers.
The patchwork structure of state early childhood systems can create challenges for families that need to access services and for states and communities that must understand families’ needs. Without coordinated systems, families may not be able to access services that can help lift them out of poverty or support them while living in poverty. Currently, the early childhood systems serving families with young children are often highly decentralized, with programs often siloed in different state agencies. Although substantial data may be collected about early childhood programs and services, many states lack coordinated data to inform policy efforts and programmatic decisions to strengthen and expand services, and to increase equitable access to care. There are many challenges and barriers to coordination, such as a lack of resources and the housing of services within many different public agencies.
We also need additional investments in supporting the early childhood workforce, which includes the people who help young children and their families thrive by providing child care and early education (e.g., home- and center-based early educators, pre-K teachers, support staff) and other services (e.g., home visitors, early interventionists) for young children and their families. This predominantly female workforce is insufficiently compensated and experiences numerous barriers to career advancement. As such, the turnover rate in the profession is high; this, in turn, results in a lack of access to high-quality early care and education services for children and families—a critical resource for supporting the development of all children, but especially children living in poverty. Compounding the issue of child poverty, many ECE professionals have children of their own and often lack access to health and well-being supports, including paid leave. These challenges facing the ECE workforce were magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, making innovative strategies to recruit, retain, and equitably compensate the ECE workforce more critical now than ever.
In large part, the social safety net drove the decline in overall child poverty rates over the last 25 years and makes clear the importance of public investments in improving children and families’ well-being. Additionally, numerous public investments play a variety of poverty-mitigating roles that both help parents connect to the workforce and provide physical and developmental resources for young children who are experiencing poverty. These programs include Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV); Head Start/Early Head Start; state-funded preschool programs; the Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five (PDG B-5); and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).
As states allocate funds and implement these programs, they often have more eligible children than funding to serve them. For example, despite a robust evidence base around the effectiveness of home visiting, MIECHV only reaches around 15 percent of eligible families due to a lack of resources. Similarly, Head Start only reaches 36 percent of eligible children due to insufficient funding. Even with a significant investment of funds for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), there is a sizable gap between the number of eligible families and available funds to serve them: In 2018, 15 percent of children eligible under federal rules received subsidies.
Beyond inadequate funding, families encounter other barriers to accessing programs designed to support young children. Administrative burdens, such as complicated applications and eligibility rules, can deter families from participating. Families may be unaware of what they qualify for because program materials are not available in their preferred language or presented at their reading level. They may be deterred from applying to or participating in programs because of a lack of child care, conflicting work schedules, lack of transportation or access to technology, or programmatic issues such as a lack of cultural sensitivity or insufficient staff to effectively run the program. As with the early childhood system, the myriad public supports available to families with young children are decentralized, requiring families to navigate multiple disconnected systems to access the comprehensive services they may need.
 While Child Trends’ recent report, Lessons From a Historic Decline in Child Poverty, used the Supplemental Poverty Measure to estimate child poverty rates, several data sources used in this piece (the KIDS COUNT DATA CENTER and the State of Babies Yearbook) use the Official Poverty Measure, which does not include government benefits in its calculation of family resources. For additional differences between the two measures, see How Poverty Is Measured in the United States.
Jordan, E., & Bredeson, M. (2022). Reducing child poverty for our youngest children requires that we consider their unique needs. Child Trends. https://cms.childtrends.org/publications/reducing-child-poverty-for-our-youngest-children-requires-that-we-consider-their-unique-needs
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