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Why child poverty in the US may be much worse than you realize

Michelle Obama hangs out with preschoolers...4 out of 10 of whom may have been in poverty during the downturn, by the numbers
Michelle Obama hangs out with preschoolers...4 out of 10 of whom may have been in poverty during the downturn, by the numbers
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Nearly 44 percent of all US kids were in poverty for two or more months from 2009 to 2012, the Census Bureau reported on Wednesday.

Poverty is unevenly spread, and for many college-educated, urban-dwelling, well-to-do Americans can be almost entirely hidden. It might be that none of the kids in your neighborhood or church or school district were in poverty during this period. But that means that there's some other neighborhood where many — even most — of the kids were. And this is just the beginning of the staggering figures on US child poverty.

Nearly 3.2 million kids were in poverty throughout the downturn

Of course, those nearly 44 percent of kids weren't in poverty that whole time. It includes lots of kids who entered and exited poverty over that period. But narrower poverty measures also show staggering numbers. For example, the average monthly poverty rate for US kids was 24.2 percent in 2012. The number of kids in poverty for all of 2012 was 9.5 million — that's 12.9 percent of all American kids. And 4.4 percent — nearly 3.2 million — were in poverty for all of 2009 to 2012.

To be fair, the US's poverty threshold is imperfect. It measures from a really pretty arbitrary standard — three times the average family's spending on food, as of 1955, adjusted for inflation.

Another measure the Census Bureau uses, the supplemental poverty measure, includes non-cash government programs like SNAP and also takes into account geographic differences in housing costs. By this measure, the child poverty rate in 2013 was 16.4, four percentage points lower than the official measure. So clearly the government — not to mention some areas of the nation that are simply cheaper — make poverty less painful for some kids.

The US is far behind its peers

That's not the only distressing measure of children's poverty that came out this week. UNICEF also reported that the US is failing on child poverty compared to its peers. According to the report, nearly one-third of US kids (32.2 percent) were living in poverty in 2012, a share that has in fact gone up since 2008, at the start of the financial crisis. When ranked by the change in that poverty rate from 2008 to 2012, the US was 27th out of 41 rich countries.

If that sounds remarkably high, it may be in part because UNICEF used an unorthodox way of measuring poverty — they defined poverty as being anyone living below 60 percent of the nations' median income, but then they pegged all poverty measures for the 2009 to 2012 period to 2008's income levels. The idea was that falling incomes during the recession would have masked the real poverty rate. The Economist has argued that the math doesn't make a lot of sense. But the results remain troubling: millions of kids worldwide who are still hit hard by a global economic downturn.

But there is no denying that the US has more kids lumped at the bottom of the income spectrum than its peers. The OECD measures relative poverty, counting the percent of children living at 50 percent or below of a country's median income. According to this measure, as of 2010 the US was 36th out of 41 countries.

Child poverty

By the OECD's measure, for example, around one in five US kids — maybe many more — are living in homes that seem to be experiencing some sort of financial hardship. That's particularly staggering when you see how poorly the US does compared to other countries.

This is a relative poverty measure, of course, so a poor kid in the relatively rich US may in fact have a family earning more than a poor kid in the Czech Republic. But the point is that the US has a much larger share of its kids living toward the bottom of the income spectrum.

High poverty and low mobility

There are a couple of takeaways here. One is that while it sounds simple, poverty is in fact a complex concept — people enter and exit poverty all the time, and different places define it very differently, which can not just mean different readings but can suggest different policy remedies. If the poverty rate doesn't include food stamps, for example, no amount of food stamps will pull kids out of poverty.

But more importantly, by many measures, the US has a poverty problem, particularly for its kids. And there are two reasons to worry even more about this. One is that poverty is slowly becoming decoupled from the economic growth rate, as the Upshot's Neil Irwin explained earlier this year. So even as the recovery improves, it may not pull these millions of kids (and their parents) out of poverty.

Couple that with data on social mobility, and it all looks even worse. Poverty is, for example, phenomenally high among families headed by single moms. Nearly 31 percent of families headed by women with no husbands present were in poverty in 2013, and studies suggest that growing up with only one parent can significantly hinder a child's ability to climb the economic ladder. And the US (in)famously has lower upward social mobility than many other developed countries. So as the US continues to get encouraging signs of economic progress, like today's GDP report or monthly jobs reports, it's important to remember who gets left behind by that growth.

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