Child poverty is getting worse in America. And with more and more states seeing their populations of disadvantaged youth soar beyond pre-recession levels, the crisis is far from limited to a few troubled states.
In 2007, before the economy seized up, and before a combination of rising unemployment and plunging home values left millions of Americans scrambling to make ends meet, the child poverty rate in America was 17.8 percent, according to a report released in December from First Focus and the Brookings Institution. Only fourteen states had child poverty rates of 20 percent or more, a percentage that put them in a category the report calls "high child poverty status."
Things have devolved considerably in the years since, however. By 2010, the national child poverty rate had risen to 21.6 percent, and the number of high-child-poverty states had nearly doubled, to 25.
It's expected to get worse before things get better. While the official statistics aren't in yet for 2011, the Brookings report predicts that nationwide child poverty swelled to 22 percent in the year just ended, and that the number of high child poverty states grew again to 28.
Behind the steady upward creep of these numbers lie a series of unpleasant realities. While the economy has made modest gains in recent months -- something President Obama has gingerly acknowledged -- jobs remain thin on the ground, and many existing jobs pay less than what a family of four needs to live. One in five Americans has had trouble putting food on the table in the past year, and nearly half of all U.S. households are struggling to cover basic expenses like electricity and medical care.
In the years since the financial crisis, the dire state of the economy has affected children as much as anyone. By the most recent estimates, sixteen million children live in poverty in the United States -- a climb of some three million from 2007. Seventeen million children live in households that lack food security, meaning they do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
All told, there were about 1.6 million homeless children in the U.S. in 2010, living in shelters, motels, on the streets or temporarily with other families, according to a recent report from the National Center on Family Homelessness. That's a rise of almost 40 percent since 2007, the NCFH says.
Overall, child poverty has increased in 43 states since 2007, according to the Brookings report, but it hasn't grown evenly in all areas. Indiana, Michigan and Nevada have seen some of the biggest gains, with each state experiencing more than a 6 percent rise in child poverty between 2007 and 2010. Georgia, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin and South Carolina have also seen their rates rise dramatically.
Evidence suggests that childhood poverty can have a lifelong effect on a person's earning potential. A previous study from First Focus found that by the time children who fell into poverty during a recession grow up to be financially independent adults, their median income is about 30 percent less than that of adults who never experienced poverty as children.