Record Number of U.S. Kids Hurt When Wages Stagnate and Rents Skyrocket

A new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness reveals that 2.5 million American children are homeless.

(Photo: Lyman Erskine/Flickr)

Nov 17, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

You can find them sleeping on the sofas of family friends and relatives, in cramped motel rooms, and on the backseat of Mom or Dad’s car. Now a sobering report from the National Center on Family Homelessness reveals just how bad life is for too many of America’s youngest residents. One in every 30 American children—2.5 million kids—is homeless. It’s the highest number of homeless kids on record in the most powerful and wealthy nation on the planet.

The center arrived at that number by combining an estimate of the number of homeless preschoolers with U.S. Department of Education data on students attending the nation’s public schools. The problem is only getting worse. According to the report, between 2012 and 2013, the number of kids in America who were homeless increased by 8 percent.

What’s behind the jump? The report’s authors cite the nation’s high poverty rate and lack of affordable housing as two of the main causes. Indeed, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in that year, 14.9 percent of Americans were living under the poverty line, which is defined as a family of four (two adults, two kids) living on just $23,550. Housing costs have also skyrocketed to the point that if you’re a minimum wage worker earning $7.25 per hour, there’s nowhere in the nation that you can afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment.

One of the hardest-hit areas of the nation is California, where 527,000 kids experienced homelessness in 2013. Parts of the Golden State have poverty rates hovering near 20 percent, and cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have some of the least-affordable housing in the nation.

The report also cited the impact of the Great Recession, racial disparities, the many challenges that single parents face, and the way that trauma such as domestic violence leads to and exacerbates a family’s homelessness.

“A key feature of homelessness is instability, and a majority of homeless children are poor. Both poverty and instability are damaging to children’s well-being, with effects that include increased stress, behavior problems, and depression,” says Anna Gassman-Pines, an assistant professor of public policy and neuroscience at Duke University.

The report’s authors also note that being homeless, especially when you’re a child, “may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships.”

“Children who grow up in poverty suffer negative effects well into adulthood,” says Gassman-Pines. “So homeless children have two strikes against them: They suffer the extreme instability caused by homelessness on top of the negative effects that come from poverty alone.”

It’s common sense that policies that reduce poverty—such as raising the minimum wage to one that people can live on—could alleviate the problem. But given that too many of our nation’s policy makers are focused on criminalizing the homeless instead of helping them, chances are that the number of kids without a bedroom of their own will keep rising.