The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty, income, and health insurance, issued in mid-September, told a bad news/good news story. The bad news – beyond the stagnating incomes highlighted in news reports – is persistently high poverty for children and youth, especially for those of color. In 2014, 21.1 percent of children (including nearly one in four children under five) and 19.8 percent of youth ages 18 to 24 were living in households with incomes below the federal poverty line ($19,043 for a family of three). Counting “near poor” families with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line, more than four in ten children and young adults are living under conditions of economic distress, making it an all-too-typical experience for America’s next generation.
The good news is that – dire as these numbers are – ambitious public policies are proving effective. Most dramatically, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has reduced the number of individuals lacking health insurance by 8.8 million in a single year – the largest decline on record. Census data offers evidence of other policy successes as well, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). While the impact of these programs is not counted in the official poverty measure, an alternative measure also calculated by the Census Bureau, the Supplemental Poverty Measure(SPM), shows that the EITC and CTC reduced child poverty by 7.1 percentage points in 2014, while SNAP reduced child poverty by 2.8 percentage points. While children are still the poorest under the SPM, the measure shows the clear positive effects of public policy.
Too often, the traditional American belief that large and ambitious public policies don’t work has served as a reason – or, perhaps, an excuse – to ignore the devastating consequences of child poverty. These successes change the playing field and should inspire an ambitious policy agenda to take aim at elevated poverty rates among America’s next generation.