Although Child Poverty Declined in 2014, Persistent Racial and Ethnic Disadvantages Remain

September 18, 2015

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Key Findings

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In 2014, 21.7 percent of children were poor, representing a modest, but statistically significant decline since 2013 (by 0.6 percentage point), but still 1.7 percentage points higher than in 2009, at the end of the Great Recession.
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Though cities and rural places remain home to the highest rates of child poverty (28.5 and 25.2 percent, respectively), child poverty declined in all place types, with the largest declines in rural America, where child poverty fell by a full percentage point.
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Declines in overall child poverty were evident in the Midwest, South, and West. Poverty also declined for children under age 6 and children age 12–17 and for all racial-ethnic groups.
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With an overall poverty rate of 38.4 percent, black children are the most disadvantaged. This rate is nearly three times the non-Hispanic white child poverty rate (13.0 percent) and 6.3 percentage points higher than the Hispanic child poverty rate (32.1 percent).


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Poverty data from the American Community Survey were released on September 17, 2015, allowing a detailed examination of poverty in 2014 across the United States. These data reveal that child poverty has fallen slightly in the last year yet the longer term pattern of high child poverty persists. The levels of child poverty vary enormously along racial and ethnic lines though all groups have seen a recent drop. Similarly, declines are generally evident across place type and region, and for both young children (under age 6) and older children (age 12–17). In this brief, we discuss changes in child poverty between 2013 and 2014 and since 2009, just after the Great Recession ended. We next explore racial-ethnic variation in child poverty in the United States, paying particular attention to patterns by Census region as well as by child age and place type (rural, suburban, city residence). Additionally, we look at how the racial-ethnic composition of poor children compares to that of nonpoor children. Finally, we consider which racial and ethnic groups are, on average, deepest in poverty, with the biggest gap between family income and the poverty threshold. 

Changes Between 2013 and 2014

Child poverty declined modestly between 2013 and 2014, from 22.3 percent to 21.7 percent (see Table 1), and roughly 400,000 fewer children across the United States lived in poverty in 2014. Yet more than one in five children still live in families with incomes below the official poverty threshold: $24,008 for a family of two adults and two children in 2014 (see Box 1).1 Child poverty declined in all place types, with the largest decline in rural America, where the rate fell by a full percentage point. Poverty also declined among young children (0.9 percentage point) and in all regions except the Northeast (where child poverty remained constant), with the largest declines in the West (0.8 percentage point). Those in the other race/multiracial category experienced the largest declines (1.1 percentage points), followed by Hispanics and Asians (0.7 percentage point each), blacks and non-Hispanic whites (0.6 percentage point each).

Racial-Ethnic Differences in Child Poverty

Although all racial-ethnic groups saw declining rates of child poverty, race-based gaps persist in child poverty rates. Across the nation, in every place type, region, and age group, black children generally have the highest poverty rate. Though the national child poverty rate for black children, 38.4 percent, is very high, in pockets of the country, black child poverty exceeds 50 percent (Table 1). Specifically, more than half of rural black children are poor, driven largely by the very high rate in the rural South (52.1 percent). Additionally, in rural places, more than half of all black children under age 12 are poor, and the rate is highest for the youngest children at 56.5 percent (Table 2).

To view Table 1 and 2 please download the PDF.

Black children are not the only minority children confronting systemic disadvantage. As a group, Hispanic children also fare particularly poorly. Their poverty rate is typically significantly lower than that of black children but they nonetheless have much higher rates than non-Hispanic whites and Asians. Among Hispanic children, poverty rates are highest in the Northeast and South (34.0 percent and 33.3 percent, respectively), particularly in the Northeastern cities where more than four in ten Hispanic children are poor. This is particularly notable because the Northeast has the lowest rate of child poverty in the nation.

In comparison, the poverty rates of non-Hispanic white and Asian children are dramatically lower than among other racial-ethnic groups, a pattern that persists across region, age, and place type. Though there is dramatic variation within the Asian child population, as a group, Asian children are generally economically better off than other racial-ethnic minorities. The highest child poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites are observed in rural America (19.5 percent) and in the South (14.1 percent). As with other racial-ethnic groups, non-Hispanic white and Asian child poverty tends to be highest among the youngest children and lowest in the suburbs.

chart showing LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYED OVER THE YEARRacial-Ethnic Composition of Nonpoor and Poor Children
The rates and trends in child poverty presented above tell an important story about how child poverty is distributed across the United States. However, they do not reveal which racial-ethnic groups of children are most concentrated among the poor. If every racial-ethnic group experienced child poverty at the same rate, child poverty would be evenly distributed (albeit still problematic in its prevalence). However, even when certain groups have high poverty rates, given the racial-ethnic composition of the child population in America, they may comprise a relatively smaller share of the poor child population. Given the disproportionate poverty rates by group, it is worthwhile to understand the composition of the population of poor children by race-ethnicity. The data released on September 17, 2015, do not permit such analyses (refer to Data section), so we rely on microdata from 2013 to better understand the racial-ethnic breakdown of the poor and nonpoor child populations, as shown in Figure 1. While non-Hispanic white children make up the largest share of the nonpoor population, Hispanic children comprise the largest share of the poor child population. Black children account for a disproportionate share of poor children at 24.0 percent compared to 10.6 percent of the nonpoor population.

How Far Below Poverty Do Children Live?


Beyond the simple designation of poor or not poor, it is also useful to explore the depth of child poverty, or how far below the poverty line children live. To do this, we again use the 2013 ACS microdata, released last year (see Figure 2). Our analyses reveal that the median income in poor black children’s families is only 47 percent of the poverty threshold. This means that for more than half of poor black children, doubling their families’ incomes would not raise them above the poverty threshold. In all place types and age categories, the incomes in poor black children’s families fall further below the poverty line than any other racial groups’. However, the racial-ethnic disparity is not as great as one might expect. Across the nation, non-Hispanic white children in poor families have median family incomes that are only 55 percent of the poverty threshold. And poor Asian children, the racial-ethnic group that is least often poor, have median family incomes at 60 percent of the poverty threshold in 2013. Thus, for all race-ethnicities, the family income of poor children is dramatically below the poverty threshold. 

It is encouraging to see declines in child poverty continue for a second year in a row. However, it is troubling that five years into economic recovery, child poverty remained 1.7 percentage points higher than in 2009, at the end of the Recession, and more than one in five children still lived below the poverty line in 2014. It is imperative to keep state and federal policies that ameliorate child poverty on the radar, as extensive research documents the long-term negative consequences of growing up poor.3

In addition to documenting persistent racial-ethnic disparities in child poverty, whereby blacks are most often economically disadvantaged, we show that these children are also living further below the poverty threshold than are other poor children. This suggests that relatively large-scale poverty alleviation efforts will be necessary to reduce the sharp racial-ethnic disparities evident in the data. As the nation struggles with issues of racism and racial equity, getting to the early roots of disparity is particularly important.

This research also highlights the continued importance of place. Child poverty differs regionally and across cities, rural places, and suburbs. Policies addressing poverty should consider nuanced ways place shapes the rate of poverty and its persistence, as well as the experience of poverty and the impact of poverty alleviation efforts.

Finally, our work shows that, in general, the youngest children tend to be the most disadvantaged. This highlights a critical need for early education programs and suggests that dual-generation approaches to poverty reduction—those that work with both poor parents and their children—may be particularly fruitful.

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 ( These tables provide the poverty data by race, age, and region presented in Tables 1 and 2. The American Community Survey’s detailed tables are limited in their race-ethnicity classifications due to breakdowns that generally consider only race or ethnicity. For example, the only racial group broken down by Hispanic status is whites. As a result, the racial-ethnic categories from the detailed tables are not mutually exclusive (that is, there is likely overlap between all racial groups and Hispanics, except for whites indicated as “non-Hispanic”). We use the 2013 American Community Survey’s Public Use Microdata to compare non-Hispanics of each racial group to Hispanics (that is, Figures 1 and 2). All estimates 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. Supplemental Poverty Measurement Versus Official Poverty Measurement
We use official poverty rates to compare child poverty across race-ethnicity, region, age, and place type providing a consistent method for assessing the adequacy of families’ incomes for meeting children’s needs. However, the official poverty measure has important limitations. The measure is dated, relying on a food spending-based formula established over fifty years ago to calculate annual poverty rates. It does not consider how work-related expenses (such as transportation and child care), in-kind assistance (for example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps), medical costs (such as insurance premiums), post-tax transfers (for example, the Earned Income Tax Credit), or geographic differences in the cost of housing impact families’ resources and expenses. To address these shortcomings, the Census Bureau began producing an alternate measure—the Research Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)—in 2009. It is an updated and more nuanced alternative that considers the aforementioned expenses and resources when calculating poverty rates.2 The 2014 SPM was released for the nation on September 16, 2015, coinciding with the release of the official measure from the new Current Population Survey data and indicated slightly higher poverty than captured by OPM, but, like the OPM, did not show significant change across all age groups since 2013. Notably, non-metropolitan (rural) and child poverty are lower under SPM than OPM (and SPM did reveal a modest decline for all children). Most racial-ethnic groups measured have somewhat higher poverty under SPM, although blacks have somewhat lower rates under the SPM. Differences between measures should be kept in mind in reading this brief which relies on the OPM. Although the American Community Survey has a much larger sample than the Current Population Survey, and thus allows for nuanced categorical breakdowns, it does not include SPM. As a result, we are limited to use of OPM in this brief.

Box 2. Definition of Rural, Suburb, 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 Sarah Leonard and Jennifer Clayton for research assistance, Michele Dillon, Mil Duncan, Michael Ettlinger, Curt Grimm, Kristin Smith, and Amy Sterndale for their feedback on earlier drafts of this brief; and Laurel Lloyd and Bianca Nicolosi at the Carsey School of Public Policy for their layout assistance.

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Endnotes are available in the pdf version. Download

About the Author(s)

Beth Mattingly
Beth Mattingly is director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School of Public Policy. She manages all of Carsey’s policy relevant work relating to family well-being. Topics covered by the vulnerable families research team range from refundable tax credits, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other federal programs, as well as policies that help families balance the domains of work and family like access to affordable child care and paid sick leave. Her interests center on women, children, and family well-being. Read More...
Andrew Schaefer
Andrew Schaefer is a Vulnerable Families Research Scientist at the Carsey School of Public Policy. Andrew joined Carsey in May 2010 as a research assistant on the Vulnerable Families research team. Much of his work at Carsey focuses on poverty, the social safety net, and women and work, including policies and programs that support low-income and other working families. Andrew is currently working on projects exploring counties with high child poverty and the economic conditions of immigrants in rural places. Read More...
Jessica Carson
Jess Carson is a Research Assistant Professor with the Vulnerable Families Research Program at the Carsey School of Public Policy. Since joining Carsey in 2010, she has studied poverty, work, and the social safety net, including policies and programs that support low-income workers like affordable health insurance, food assistance programs, and quality child care. Her other interests include health within and across families, and the intersection of health and employment across the income spectrum. Jess is also working on a long-term project around the challenges and opportunities facing people who live and work in rural communities, with the goal of highlighting the strategies that work best to support them. She has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of New Hampshire. Read More...