Child poverty in the 21st century

Added February 27th, 2015 by Jane Zehnder-Merrell | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Jane Zehnder-Merrell

The number of Michigan children living in families with income below the poverty level drops by half when tax and non-cash benefits are included as income, according to the latest analysis from the national KIDS COUNT project at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The percentage of the state’s children who would be living in poverty if no government program benefits and tax credits were available, however, stood at 30 percent, as calculated by the Supplemental Poverty Measure.

This new measure, implemented in 2011 by the U.S. Census Bureau, was created after decades of research and recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences panel. The updated SPM not only adjusts for income but also for the variation in cost of living and work-related expenses, unlike the traditional poverty measure created over 50 years ago.

While 341,000 children in the state live in families lifted above the poverty level as calculated by the SPM, 339,000 remain in families with income inadequate to meet basic needs. Some may live in families ineligible for food assistance because of the state’s new asset test or those denied cash assistance due to redefined time limits that ignore the restrictive realities of low-wage work with unpredictable schedules and no benefits.

Child poverty undermines all aspects of child well-being, physical and mental health, safety and education.  Similar to the traditional poverty measure, the SPM shows that Latino and African-American children experience roughly triple the risk of poverty as their white counterparts.

Given the capacity of government interventions to lift families above poverty, state and federal policymakers who are concerned about improving educational achievement and workforce skills for the 21st century should be looking at ways to extend such benefits to more families and children, not reduce access.

In Michigan family savings must be depleted below $5,000 for family eligibility for food assistance, and the months that families receive as little as $10 cash assistance now count against the 48-month limit.  The eligibility level for the state child care subsidy and the hourly amount have not been adjusted for inflation in over two decades, severely limiting child care options for low-income families.

The SPM provides valuable information about the effectiveness and limitations of government investments in the next generation and its capacity to address the inequities of place and race.

 — Jane Zehnder-Merrell

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