America's childhood poverty numbers aren't pretty, but they are even uglier than you might think.
Take a snapshot of the U.S. today, and you'll find that 22 percent of all children live in families that are below the federal poverty level. But what happens when you look at how American children fare throughout their pre-adult lives? It's nearly twice as bad.
Almost 40 percent of American children spend at least one year in poverty before they turn 18, according to a new study from the Urban Institute. While a current analysis of poverty trends might find a lower rate of children living in penury, that doesn't capture the fluid nature of people's lives, with many lower-income families bouncing slightly above the poverty line -- just under $24,000 for a family of four -- before sinking below the threshold in other years.
"It did surprise us," said Urban Institute senior fellow and economist Caroline Ratcliffe, who conducted the study. "When we look at the annual number of children in poverty, it's at about 20 percent, and we know children cycle into and out of poverty, so we knew it would be higher, but double is startling."
Spending time in poverty has long-term effects on children, she added. Children who are poor are less likely to achieve milestones that increase the likelihood of success in the future, such as graduating from high school and attending college, than kids who have never experienced poverty.
"When you look at children who are poor for one year, they still do worse in terms of these outcomes: completing high school, enrolling in and completing college, and having consistent employment," Ratcliffe noted.
Black children were the most likely to experience a year in poverty, with the research finding that three-quarters are poor at some point during their pre-adult years. For white children, the number is still high -- 30 percent -- but much lower than for black children.
Then there are the children who are what Ratcliffe's report calls "persistently poor," which means living below the federal poverty level for at least half of one's childhood. One in 10 American children falls into this category, although when viewed by race, black children suffer disproportionately, with about four out of 10 suffering lengthy bouts of poverty.
The persistently poor children are 13 percent less likely to complete high school and 43 percent less likely to complete college than those who experience poverty as children, but who don't spend as much time in financial distress.
Poverty hits children hard on a number of levels, including being forced to move for negative reasons, such as evictions. That instability can create a significant challenge for school success, Ratcliffe said.
"We have very young children who are born into poverty and unstable environments," she said. "Flexible policies that allow children to stay in the same school when a move take them across boundary lines could help them keep up with their peers."
While it might be tempting to think that this is a problem facing poor families alone, Ratcliffe points out that there are larger societal impacts.
"There is a cost to poverty," she said. " When children don't do well and succeed, this ripples through to the next generation. We can pay for the cost of this today via investment or we can pay later with increased costs as these children move down the road and aren't successful."
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