Place-Based Patterns Persist in Other “Poverty” Measures
In addition to tracking trends in child poverty over time, the analysis of other income-based measures in conjunction with children’s designation as poor or not poor can further improve our understanding of children’s economic well-being. For instance, there is considerable evidence that the official poverty measure is an inadequate indicator of need, and multiple methods for improving assessments of income, including the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM),2 have been proposed. Although the data used here allow us to examine sub-state geographies, they do not provide SPM measures or the information necessary to compute the SPM. Instead, we expand our exploration of children’s economic well-being by documenting the share of children who live not only below 100 percent of the poverty line, as above, but also below 50 percent of the federal poverty line (“deeply poor”) and below 200 percent (“low income”). 3
These categorizations have measured implications for children. First, we chose a “low-income” indicator of less than 200 percent of poverty based on research which has found that families require incomes between 1.5 and 3.5 times the federal poverty threshold to meet their most basic household needs. 4 For a single parent with two children, the 200 percent threshold equates to $38,146 per year, $3,179 per month, or $34.84 per person, per day. Families with incomes below those levels very likely have difficulty meeting basic day-to-day needs, and parents may curtail spending on certain necessities like nutritious food or medications in order to pay rent or utilities. Second, we incorporate a measure of deep poverty, as research identifies a concentration of the deleterious effects of poverty, including worse cognitive scores and greater behavioral problems, at incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty line.5 For a single parent with two children, this equates to $9,536 per year, $795 per month, or $8.71 per person, per day.
As shown in Table 2, 44.1 percent of children live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. The share of children living below this threshold varies substantially across the nation. For instance, more than half of children in cities and rural places live in low-income families (52.9 and 51.7 percent, respectively), compared with just 36.9 percent of suburban children. In suburbs and cities, the share of children who were in low-income families fell between 2013 and 2014, though rates were stable in rural places and remain elevated compared to post-recession levels in all place types. The Midwest and West experienced declines in low-income rates between 2013 and 2014. Rates of low-income children were more stable than child poverty rates between 2013 and 2014, with only five states (California, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah) experiencing declining shares of children in low-income families, and no states experiencing increases.
Figure 2 shows the share of children by state who lived in deeply poor families (incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2014. 6 As with other patterns in child economic well-being, the states with the highest rates of deep poverty tend to be clustered in the South. Nationwide, nearly one in ten children (9.6 percent) lived in deeply poor families, down 0.3 percentage point since 2013 but still nearly a full percentage point above 2009 post-recession levels. In most states, the share of children who were deeply poor remained stable between 2013 and 2014. However, higher shares of children were deeply poor in Maine and North Dakota, while rates dropped in seven other states (Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, and North Carolina).
Poor Children Can Be Clustered in States Where Poverty Rates Are ‘Low’
Finally, although rates of children living below 200, 100, and 50 percent of the poverty threshold are especially high in the South, it is important to also consider how the size and distribution of the child population shapes where vulnerable children are concentrated. For example, California is home to more low-income children (4.1 million) than are the twenty-three states with the fewest low-income children combined (see Figure 3), despite its near-average low-income rate of 46.0 percent. In contrast, New Mexico has among the highest shares of children in low-income families, at 55.5 percent, but is home to just 274,000 or 6.6 percent as many, low-income children as California.
Not only are higher shares of children living in poverty than prior to the Great Recession, but nearly one in ten children live in families with incomes below half of the poverty line, that is, with incomes below $12,004 for a family of two adults and two children. That nearly 7 million American children are living in such deeply poor homes highlights the necessity of the social safety net. It is important to note that although policy interventions like tax credits or other work supports may improve the quality of life for many children, the impact of these interventions may not show up in official poverty statistics, since official statistics do not consider these supports in their calculations. As a result, policy makers might consider using innovative measures like the Supplemental Poverty Measure or additional calculations using the official poverty measure in assessing the efficacy of safety net efforts. In calculating the SPM, the U.S. Census Bureau has identified an important role for programs like refundable tax credits, albeit only for children whom such programs reach.7
Further, despite tremendous variation in the cost of living across the nation, the official poverty measure does not make adjustments for family income purchasing power. That is, poor families may be able to afford better housing or more nutritious food in relatively inexpensive states like Indiana or Kentucky than in more expensive places like California or New York, or in less-expensive rural places than in costlier urban centers. 8 Nonetheless, research suggests that, depending on geography, families need between 1.5 and 3.5 times the poverty line to meet their basic needs of housing, food, child care, health insurance, medical care, transportation, and taxes. That more than four in ten of the nation’s children live in low-income homes highlights the critical importance of both improving access to opportunity and of making work pay for America’s most vulnerable families. Given dramatic differences in the cost of living across the nation, it may be worthwhile to consider making or increasing geographic adjustments to a host of safety net programs.
This analysis is based on estimates from the 2009, 2013, and 2014 American Community Survey. Tables were produced by aggregating information from detailed tables available on American FactFinder (http://factfinder.census.gov). These estimates give perspective on child poverty, but they are based on survey data, so caution must be exercised in comparing across years or places. All differences highlighted in this brief are statistically significant (p<0.05).
Box 1: Definition of Rural, Suburban, and City
Definitions of rural and urban vary among researchers and the sources of data they use. Data for this brief are derived from the American Community Survey, which identifies each household as being within one of several geographic components. As used here, “city” designates households in the principal city of a given metropolitan statistical area, and “suburban” includes those in metropolitan areas but not within the principal city of that area. “Rural” consists of the addresses that are not within a metropolitan area.
This work was supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and anonymous donors. The authors thank Barbara Cook, Sarah Leonard, and Jennifer Clayton for research assistance; Michele Dillon, Michael Ettlinger, Curt Grimm, and Amy Sterndale for their feedback on earlier drafts; Laurel Lloyd and Bianca Nicolosi at the Carsey School of Public Policy for their layout assistance; and Patrick Watson for his editorial assistance.