Acton Institute Powerblog

The surprising good news about child poverty

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Here’s some good news you probably haven’t heard: Over the past fifty years the child poverty rate has almost been cut in half, falling to a record low of 15.6 percent in 2016 compared to the 1967 level of 28.4 percent.

That’s the finding in a new report by Isaac Shapiro and Danilo Trisi of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The “official” child poverty rate provided by the government, though, is listed as 19.7 percent. Why the substantial difference?

The reason is because the study by Shapiro and Trisi uses the federal government’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), a measurement that includes income and benefits the official poverty rate ignores, such the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), rental subsidies, and other federal non-cash benefits and refundable tax credits.

“In the years since the 1960s, policymakers created and then expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC); these refundable tax credits provide substantial income support to low-income working families with children,” notes the report. “And SNAP barely existed in 1967, the first year in our data series, while today it’s a major program serving over 40 million people.”

Labor market trends and developments in the private economy also contributed to a reduction in child poverty over the past fifty years. Before government benefits are included the rate declined from 27.4 percent in 1967 to 25.1 percent in 2016. But social trends, particularly the drastic increase in single-parent families, have negated much of that progress.

The report also notes that the improvement in child poverty has benefited all demographic groups. “Data broken out by racial-ethnic group that go back to 1991 demonstrate that, from that year to 2016, SPM poverty rates among black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white children were all cut roughly in half (though poverty rates remained much higher in every year among children of color than among non-Hispanic white children),” says the report.

Much more needs to be done, of course, since too many children in America are still living in poverty. But this study shows that tax reforms such as the EITC and the CTC can play a substantial role in lifting low-income children out of a life of deprivation.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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