Early Childhood Education

Poverty, Family, and Child


The multiple stressors of poverty limit children’s readiness for and ability to succeed in school. In the United States, the official poverty threshold was developed for the federal government in 1964. The poverty threshold is based on a formula that tripled the cost of a basic food plan because, at that time, the average household spent one third of its income on food. Every year, the poverty threshold is updated for inflation, and in 2006 it is equivalent to $20,000 for a family of four.

Using the official poverty definition, 18 percent of all children in the United States—13 million individuals—lived in poverty in 2003. These rates, however, have fluctuated over the past four decades, since the Census Bureau started tracking poverty rates. In 1959, 27 percent of children lived in poverty. The poverty rate declined through the 1960s to a low of 14 percent by the early 1970s. Poverty then began a steady increase, reaching a high of 22 percent by the early 1990s. From 1993 to 2001, poverty declined to 16 percent, but has since been rising.


Criticisms of the Poverty Definition

As early as 1965, experts began criticizing the poverty threshold. A 1995 report by the National Academy of Sciences recommended revising the poverty threshold because it did not include increases in child care costs, due to higher employment among mothers, medical costs, taxes, or noncash government benefits (e.g., food stamps) (Citro and Michael, 1995). Furthermore, the poverty threshold has not kept up with increases in living standards in the United States, which means that people in poverty are worse off relative to the rest of the population than they were forty years ago. A 2000 study of families’ basic budgets for major expenses, including housing, child care, health care, food, transportation, and taxes, showed that families must earn twice the poverty line to provide a “safe and decent” standard of living for their children (Bernstein et al., 2000). For this reason, many analyses of child poverty in the United States, including those developed by the National Center for Children in Poverty, not only include those children who are in officially poor families, but those in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level.


Characteristics of Low-Income Children

In 2003, 37 percent of American children (26 million) lived in low-income families—defined as families with incomes less than twice the poverty threshold. That is more than one out of every three children in the United States. Minority children, children of immigrants, young children, and children living in southern states are much more likely to live in low-income families. Fifty-eight percent of black children and 62 percent of Latino children live in low-income families, compared to 25 percent of white children. Thirty-three percent of black children, 30 percent of Latino children and 9 percent of white children live in poor families. Two thirds of children of recent immigrants live in low-income families, compared to one third of children of native-born parents, despite high levels of work and marriage among immigrant parents. Thirty-three percent of children of recent immigrants and 15 percent of children of native-born parents live in poor families. Forty-one percent of children under six are in low-income families, compared to 36 percent of older children. Twenty percent of children under six and 15 percent of older children live in poor families. Rates of poverty and low-income status also vary among the states. More than half the children in some southern and southwestern states, such as Arkansas and New Mexico, live in low-income families.

Low parental education is a primary risk factor for low income. Eighty-two percent of children, whose parents lack a high school degree, are low-income, compared to 22 percent of children whose parents have at least some college education. Forty-eight percent of children whose parents lack a high school degree and 8 percent of children whose parents have at least some college education live in poor families. Employment does not prevent low incomes among parents with low education. Among children whose parents lack a high school degree, 72 percent remain low-income even though their parents work full-time and year-round. Parents’ marital status is also an important risk factor for low income. Children of single parents are more than twice as likely to live in low-income families and three times as likely to be poor compared to children of married parents.


Hardship among Children in Low-Income Families

Children in low-income families experience many hardships that are a direct result of economic insecurity. They are more likely to suffer from poor health because they are less likely to have health insurance, less likely to go to the doctor or dentist, and less likely to have sufficient food to eat (Casey et al., 2001). Characteristics of neighborhoods contribute to children’s poorer health. Children in low-income families are more likely to be exposed to environmental contaminants (Chuang et al., 1999) and to live in more violent neighborhoods (Evans), where they are disproportionately killed or injured as a result of that violence.

Decades of research suggest that poverty and low-income status is one of the greatest risk for children’s poor performance in school. Children in low-income families score lower on standardized reading and math tests (Gershoff, 2003), in part, because they are less prepared to enter school. Low-income working mothers are more likely to rely on the less expensive child care provided by relatives, which is less likely to enhance school-readiness than the center-based care used by higher-income families (Cappizanno and Adams, 2004). Low-income mothers experience depression at twice the rate of mothers with higher incomes, which can lead to poor cognitive and behavioral outcomes for their children (Knitzer, 2002). Low-income children are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, which compromises their ability to do well in school (Raver and Knitzer). Low-income families are more likely to move because of housing problems (Koball and Douglass-Hall, 2003), which can result in their children’s falling behind in school because of frequent school changes (Pribesh and Downey, 1999).


Government Efforts to Address Poverty

Over the years, the federal government has tried many different approaches to combat poverty. Since the war on poverty, however, there has been no commitment to reducing poverty as a national goal, comparable, for example to the current policy in the United Kingdom. In the United States, the primary types of assistance for low-income children and families include cash benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); in-kind assistance, which pay for specific supports, such as food stamps or housing subsidies; low-cost or free health insurance, such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance program; and programs aimed at poverty prevention, such as Head Start, a preschool program to prepare low-income children for kindergarten and Pell Grants, which help low-income students pay for college. Other more recent poverty prevention programs focus on the dynamics of low-income families. These programs include marriage promotion, which aims to decrease divorce and increase marriage among low-income parents; fatherhood programs, which aim to increase father involvement and child support payments of low-income fathers; and teen pregnancy prevention programs.

As of fiscal year 2000, 6 percent of the United States budget was spent on means-tested programs, and an additional 7 percent of the budget was spent on Medicaid. Not all of this money was spent on low-income children and their families. For example, Medicaid also serves people with disabilities and senior citizens in nursing homes. One of the most important antipoverty programs is the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which was created in the 1975, but greatly expanded in the early 1990s. It is the nation’s largest cash program for low-income families—in 2002, it provided $37 billion to 21 million low- and middle-income families. It reduces the amount of tax that families with annual incomes of up to roughly $34,000 pay. The EITC is refundable, which means that families receive cash back if the credit is more than their taxes owed. Because families can only receive the tax credit if they earn income, the EITC is believed to encourage work among low-income and poor families. It is estimated that the EITC lifts over 2 million children out of poverty each year.

In recent years, there has also been new attention to policies directed at changing family formation and dissolution decisions. For example, marriage promotion efforts, ranging from public awareness campaigns about the benefits of marriage to individual marriage counseling, are being considered. Because research shows that the vast majority of low-income, unmarried, new parents want to marry, supporters believe that these programs will help parents reach this goal. Critics assert that since the effectiveness of marriage promotion programs is untested, such efforts should not be funded by a large sum of government money.

Poverty remains one of the greatest risk factors for children’s poor health, poor school performance, and future poverty. Children are at risk of living in poor and low-income families simply because of their race, their parents’ education levels, or even the state in which they live. Today, even full-time parental employment does not guarantee that a child will not face the risks of growing up in a poor or low-income family. Although government programs, such as Head Start, have been proven to lower the risks associated with low income, they remain in jeopardy of being cut or substantially changed. Other programs, such as the EITC, which have been shown to increase work and improve the financial well-being of low-income families, are also at risk. A national, comprehensive commitment to reducing childhood poverty is currently needed in the United States.

Further Readings: Bernstein, Jared, Chauna Brocht, and Maggie Spade-Aguilar (2000). How much is enough? Basic family budget for working families. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute; Cappizanno, Jeffrey, and Gina Adams (2004). Children in low- income families are less likely to be in center-based care. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute; Casey, P. H., K. Szeto, S. Lensing, M. L. Bogle, and J. Weber. (2001). Children in food-insufficient low-income families: prevalence, health and nutrition status. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 155: 508-514; Chuang, J. C., P. J. Callahan, C. W. Lyu, and N. K. Wilson (1999). Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposures of children in low-income families. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology 9(2), 85-98; Citro, Constance, and Robert T. Michael (1995). Measuring poverty: A new approach. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; Evans, Gary (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist 59(2), 77-92; Gershoff, Elizabeth (2003). Low income and the development of America’s kindergartners. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty; Knitzer, Jane (2002). Building services and systems to support the healthy emotional development of young children—an action guide for policymakers. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty; Koball, Heather, and Ayana Douglas-Hall (2003). Where do low-income children live? New York: National Center for Children in Poverty; Pribesh, S., and D. B. Downey (1999). Why are residential and school moves associated with poor school performance? Demography 36(4), 521-534; Raver, C. Cybele, and Jane Knitzer (2002). Ready to enter: What research tells policy makers about strategies to promote social and emotional school readiness among three and four year old children. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.

Jane Knitzer and Heather Koball