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Growing Poverty Problems Among Young Families and Their Children: A Major Neglected National Crisis

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By Andrew Sum and Marian Wright Edelman

Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report on the size and incidence of poverty problems in our nation. The news was, as predicted by poverty analysts, quite distressing. The nation's overall poverty rate rose to 14.3%, the third consecutive annual increase and the highest poverty rate in the nation since 1994. Nearly 44 million people were categorized as living below the official poverty line, the largest aggregate number in the 50 year history of the poverty data.

Underneath these aggregate poverty statistics, however, lie a highly variable set of findings on who the poor are, substantial differences in the poverty rates across age and race-ethnic groups, and differing time trends in the incidence of their problems. The past decade has taken a terrible toll on young adults under 30, their families, and their children. The nation's children, those under age 18 and especially those under five, experienced the highest increase in poverty over the past three years, and those residing in young families face overwhelmingly high rates of poverty, near poverty, and low incomes. An extraordinarily high fraction of the children in young families -- 46 -- were either poor or near poor in 2009.

Since the beginning of the national war on poverty in 1964, the age structure of poverty rates has changed markedly. In the mid-1960s, the nation's older population (65+) was the most likely to be poor. Due largely to changes in the levels and structure of Social Security payments in the early 1970s, this age disparity changed. Children became the most poverty prone group in the nation and the age gaps have widened considerably over time. In 2009, the poverty rate of all children under 18 increased to just under 21% versus 13% for adults ages 18-64, and under 9% for those adults 65 and older. Children today are 2.3 times as likely to be poor as our older residents, and for those children under five the gap is closer to three to one.

Due to declining employment and real annual earnings among young adults under 30 and the continued decline in marriage among young parents, children in the nation's youngest families are by far the most poverty prone. In 2009, nearly 40 percent of all children residing in young families were poor, 46 of every 100 were poor or near poor, and 66 of every 100 were low income i.e., an income under twice the poverty line.

Growing up in a poor/near poor family places children, especially young children, at a high risk of encountering a wide array of cognitive, educational attainment, health, nutrition, public safety, and housing problems. They are far more likely than their more affluent peers to have severe academic achievement deficits, to fall behind their age peers in grade level, and to drop out of high school before graduation. They are more likely to experience malnutrition problems, to encounter physical and mental health problems in their childhood and teen years, and to become teen parents. During their teenage years, they are much more likely to be jobless, especially when they are both poor and African American or Hispanic. When they do graduate from high school, they are much less likely to attend college and to graduate with a bachelor's degree even when they have high academic achievement.

The long-run economic, educational, health, and social consequences of having so many children being raised in poor and low income families are likely to be quite severe. Left unaddressed, these problems will reduce the human capital of our future workforce, reduce the economic competitiveness of our nation, curtail economic mobility, contribute to our growing budget deficit, and increase the already heightened degree in income and wealth inequality in society. The time for immediate and sustained public policy actions to radically reduce childhood poverty is right now. The clock is ticking.

Andrew Sum is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund, a national child advocacy organization.