How the pandemic led to a significant decline in child poverty

The child poverty rate in the U.S. fell last year to the lowest level on record. Families were helped as cash benefits, tax credits and other types of non-cash assistance increased during the pandemic. Dana Thomson of Child Trends is one of the lead researchers on the analysis. She joined Judy Woodruff to discuss their study.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The child poverty rate in the U.S. fell by nearly half last year to 5.2 percent. That is the lowest level on record, and is based on a Census Bureau measure that takes into account cash benefits, tax credits and other kinds of noncash benefits, many of which increased during the pandemic.

    Meantime, nearly 92 percent of Americans had health insurance for some part of the year. But, overall, inequality increased and median income remained largely flat. That drop in childhood poverty was preceded by an even larger decline since the '90s.

    All this is according to a new analysis done by the nonpartisan research group Child Trends and The New York Times.

    Dana Thomson is one of the lead researchers. And she joins me now.

    So, hello, Dana Thomson.

    Dropping by nearly half, child poverty, how did it happen?

  • Dana Thomson, Child Trends:

    That's a great question.

    Yes, what we're looking at here is really a remarkable success story. In 1993, about one in four kids in the U.S. were experiencing poverty. And, by 2019, we had reduced that by nearly 60 percent to one in 10. And that's largely thanks to the growth in the social safety net and a healthy economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, social safety net, that means government programs. What portion of this drop would you say is due to government aid?

  • Dana Thomson:

    So we didn't estimate the exact portion due to government aid. But we did include, as you said, a collection of programs. And we looked at programs, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security, nutrition and housing assistance, and unemployment insurance.

    And, together, they reduced child poverty by about 44 percent in 2019 alone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you said, but some of this also due to improvements in the economy?

  • Dana Thomson:

    That's exactly right. So, in 2019, we had lower unemployment rates, more single moms entering the work force and increases in state minimum wages.

    And each of those were associated with the decline in child poverty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And where, Dana Thomson, do you see most of this improvement? I mean, is it spread evenly among all children, or are there differences geographically, racially, or by some other measure?

  • Dana Thomson:


    So, amazingly, we saw child poverty decline across all 50 states and D.C. and across all levels of poverty. We also saw child poverty decline for nearly all subgroups of children that we examined. That includes children in immigrant families, as well as children in nonimmigrant families. We saw declines across all race, ethnicities, and we just saw declines across different family types.

    However, but — because the because poverty declined at similar rates for each of these groups, the disparities between these groups persisted. So, children and single-parent families and Black and Hispanic children were about three times as likely to experience poverty in 1993, and they're still three times as likely to experience poverty as their peers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're not seeing an improvement when it comes to comparing some of these specific groups; is that right?

  • Dana Thomson:

    That's correct.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about the view of some conservatives out there who say, when you give this kind of government aid, it should be accompanied by a work requirement.

    How much was there a work requirement in the programs that you described? And can you tell whether that had an effect one way or another?

  • Dana Thomson:

    Yes, so the amazing thing about this decline is that we have also seen it as fairly robust across multiple administrations.

    And the social safety net is comprised of a mix of programs. Some of those programs have work requirements. Some of them are — have no work requirements. So the Earned Income Tax Credit, for instance, is conditional on work. And it's been one of our most effective longstanding programs for reducing child poverty.

    And it's particularly important because it helps make work, work for families, because it boosts their wages, especially when wages are too low to support a family. But there are also a host of other programs, many of which are not conditional on work. And these include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment insurance.

    And they — those programs naturally expand during recessions, and are really critical for families when they're facing temporary setbacks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, remind us, are these — to what extent are these programs you have been talking about in danger of being cut back or eliminated altogether? I mean, what are we looking at in terms of their durability, the fact that they could — would continue for years to come?

    What do you see there?

  • Dana Thomson:

    I do think that we have kind of a robust mix of programs right now. And, again, as I said, this mix of programs has been with us through multiple administrations. So I think there's solid backing for a lot of those programs.

    Of course, we have seen, during recessions, the implementation of a number of temporary measures that have helped families really make ends meet during times of increased economic hardship. So those include some of the measures that were implemented during the pandemic, such as stimulus payments, the advanced child tax credit, Pandemic EBT, and rental assistance.

    And those have been real — really critical for preventing an increase in child poverty and are important moving forward as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I should say finally that there are still, by what you're reporting, some, what, over eight million American children who are still living below the poverty line.

    In a nutshell, what's the difference in the quality of life for them vs. these other children who've benefited?

  • Dana Thomson:

    Yes. It's really important to remember that there are real people behind these numbers.

    And, as you know, I'm sure, there's a wealth of evidence that shows that growing up in poverty impacts virtually every dimension of child development, from physical and mental health, as well as behavioral health, to educational attainment and labor market success as adults.

    So, reducing child poverty not only improves well-being for children and families, but it also has long-term benefits for society.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dana Thomson, with Child Trends, thank you very much.

  • Dana Thomson:

    Thank you for having me.

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