Research Report Escaping Poverty
Predictors of Persistently Poor Children’s Economic Success
Caroline Ratcliffe, Emma Cancian Kalish
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This report is part of an evolving body of work informing the US Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.

A core American ideal is that all children should have a clear pathway to thrive and prosper as adults. Yet, children in poverty—particularly children who are persistently poor—face steep obstacles on their path to economic success.

Today, nearly 9 million children in the United States (11.8 percent) will grow up in persistently poor families, meaning that they will spend at least half their lives from birth through age 17 living in poverty. The majority of persistently poor children (56 percent) are black, while 36 percent are white and 8 percent are another race or ethnicity. Rates of poverty and mobility vary across racial and ethnic groups, but data limitations constrained the ability to generate indicators for American Indians and Alaska Natives; Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians; and Hispanics or Latinos of all races. Consequently, this analysis focuses only on differences between black people and white people.

Persistently poor children are significantly less likely to succeed economically as adults than their nonpoor and less-poor counterparts. Only 62 percent of persistently poor children complete high school compared with 90 percent of children who never experience poverty. Further, only a third (34 percent) of people who were persistently poor as children are consistently working or in school between the ages of 25 and 30, and less than half (45 percent) are never poor between the ages of 25 and 30.

What we know about persistently poor children

In examining paths of persistently poor children into adulthood and the characteristics of those who are and are not economically successful, we offer suggestions for improving future prospects of persistently poor children. Our strategies are based on the following key findings:

  • Persistently poor children have varied economic trajectories in adulthood. Only 16 percent of persistently poor children are consistently working or in school (i.e., “connected”) as young adults and are not poor in their late 20s.
  • Young adults in the most economically successful group (those who are “connected” and not poor) are more likely to enter their 20s without having had a teen birth and having attained higher levels of education than their less successful counterparts.
  • Persistently poor children fare better when they spend more years living above the poverty level and when they are not poor early in life (birth to age 2).
  • Less than half (48 percent) of persistently poor children have a parent that graduated from high school, far below the national average of 86 percent. A small difference in parental education can be seen between more and less successful young adults.
  • Persistently poor children who live with a parent (or other family head/spouse) who has a disability are more likely to struggle as young adults. The most economically successful young adults spent 8 percent of their early adolescence (ages 12–17) in a family with a head or spouse with a disability, while the least successful young adults spent 40 percent.
  • Family and neighborhood characteristics relate to success in young adulthood among those persistently poor as children. When compared with less successful young adults, the most successful
    • are less likely to be poor at very young ages and spend fewer years in poverty,
    • spend more years in an employed family,
    • spend fewer years in a family headed by someone with a disability, and
    • live in less disadvantaged neighborhoods and less segregated cities with less segregated schools.

Strategies for improving outcomes for persistently poor children

The future prospects of persistently poor children are dim compared with their nonpoor counterparts. Despite facing many obstacles, a small share of persistently poor children manages to escape poverty and find consistent work as young adults. The following strategies could help more persistently poor children get on a pathway to economic success:

  • Connect families with the resources for which they are eligible, making sure that parents in poverty gain access to benefits and services before their child is born or in the hospital.
  • Link parents experiencing poverty with subsidized employment and develop education and training programs targeted at less-educated parents.
  • Use the Supplemental Security Income program to connect recipients with minor children (especially young teenagers) to services based on the needs of the whole family.
  • Develop place-conscious strategies that address the conditions of persistently poor children’s neighborhoods and schools, as well as programs that help families experiencing poverty move out of disadvantaged neighborhoods to neighborhoods with better schools and more opportunities.
Research Areas Children and youth Families Social safety net Race and equity Child welfare Disability equity policy
Tags Poverty Economic well-being Racial and ethnic disparities Child welfare Disabilities and employment Unemployment and unemployment insurance Inequality and mobility Kids in context Neighborhoods and youth development Racial barriers to accessing the safety net Racial inequities in employment Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development