39 percent of children have been poor at some point in their childhood
Being poor as a child, even for only a short time, can have consequences reaching far into adulthood. The instability that accompanies poverty puts stress on parents, spilling over to children. This can manifest itself in long-lasting ways. In the face of these obstacles, what circumstances help poor children succeed (or at least don’t hold them back) and what stacks the deck against them?
Before considering the circumstances, let’s first examine the scale of the problem. Poverty affects many more children than annual statistics record. While roughly one in five children currently lives in poverty, nearly twice as many (39 percent) have been poor at some point in their childhood. Black children fare much worse: fully three-quarters are poor during childhood, compared with 30 percent of white children.
Children who have been poor for at least one year before they turn 18 are less likely to reach important adult milestones, such as graduating from high school, than children who have never been poor (78 percent vs. 93 percent). They’re also more likely to have a child as a teenager or be involved with the criminal justice system, which can affect their future job prospects and ability to finish school.
Among children who have experienced poverty, what are the key markers of their future success? Here are four major factors, based on my analysis of 40 years of data (1968-2009) from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which follows families and their children over time.
1. How long children are living in poverty: Children who are persistently poor—poor for at least half their childhood—are 13 percent less likely to complete high school and 37 percent less likely to be consistently employed as young adults than children who experience poverty for fewer years.
2. Whether their parents have graduated from high school: Among children who have experienced poverty, those whose parents have completed high school are 11 percent more likely to do the same. Children whose parents have more than a high school education are 30 percent more likely to complete high school and almost five times more likely to complete college than those whose parents did not graduate from high school.
3. How frequently families move: Moving homes frequently can be disruptive for children, particularly if they move for negative reasons, such as evictions or a family’s need for lower rent. Among children who have experienced poverty, children who move three or more times for negative reasons are 15 percent less likely to complete high school and 68 percent less likely to complete a four-year college degree than those who never move.
4. Where children live: Neighborhood characteristics matter, even after taking account of family characteristics. Among children who have experienced poverty, those who grow up in better neighborhoods are more likely to complete high school, finish four years of college, and be childless throughout their teens than those who live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Knowing this, what can be done to improve poor children’s chances of success?
For one, education and training programs for low-educated parents, bundled with work supports such as child care subsidies. Addressing the needs of the parents and the children is an important step for reinforcing families and helping children succeed.
For another, flexible policies that allow children to remain in the same school when a move takes them across school boundary lines. Federal policies that allow homeless students and foster children to stay in the same school could be expanded to include all low-income children.
Lastly, expanded home-visiting and parenting programs targeted at new parents, along with increased funding to meet the demand for Early Head Start, which provides intensive supports to parents and children. Targeting resources to new parents and their young children can help children during a critical period of development.
Even short periods of childhood poverty can be accompanied by uncertainty, stress, and unmet needs—with long-term consequences. Taking steps to provide stability for parents and children will help improve the outcomes of the next generation.