The Recession Is Over, but Child Poverty Is Still Crippling America

A new report from the Casey Foundation found the situation is worst for children of color.

A child eating at the Union Rescue Mission homeless shelter in Los Angeles. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Jul 21, 2015· 2 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.

It’s summer vacation, but on weekdays in my Los Angeles neighborhood, a stream of children can be seen walking into the local elementary school. They probably love learning, but they’re not heading inside for math and reading enrichment classes.

Those kids in my neighborhood are going to school to get a hot meal.

The explanation for why they are so eager to head to school can be found in a sobering report released on Tuesday from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Years after the market crashed, more children in the United States were living in poverty than were at the height of the Great Recession.

An astounding 16.1 million kids—22 percent of American children—were living in poverty in 2013, the report found. That’s 3 million more impoverished kids than in 2008, when the nation was reeling from the subprime mortgage crisis. Children of color were worst off, with 39 percent of African American, 37 percent of Native American, and 33 percent of Hispanic kids living in poverty.

The report’s authors analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal sources along 16 key indicators, such as health, education, and economic well-being. Sure, the economy has improved over the past two years and millions more jobs have been created, but the report notes that growth “has been disproportionate in low-wage sectors, such as retail and food services, and in some of the lower-wage positions within health care and home care.” Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for African Americans continues to be more than twice that of white and Asian Americans.

So, Why Should You Care? “Young children raised in low-income households may get insufficient food and nutrients, which can negatively impact physical development. When children go to school hungry, they are unable to focus their full attention on learning,” wrote the report’s authors.

Studying is kind of tough when you’re a kid growing up living in a motel or shelter because there’s no place in the United States a parent earning minimum wage can afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment. Good luck hitting the books if your stomach is growling, which is what faces 25 percent of children living in major cities who don’t have enough food at home, according to No Kid Hungry. They’re getting their meals from schools because their families don’t have enough money for a trip to the grocery store.

Given such high poverty rates, and the social, emotional, and health stress that it places on kids and their families, it’s no wonder more than 80 percent of African American and Latino fourth graders and 78 percent of Native American fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading. That’s strikingly higher compared with the 55 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 49 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders—groups with lower unemployment—according to the report.

RELATED: 5 Reasons We Shouldn't Be So Surprised by What Kids Wish Teachers Knew

That could spell long-term trouble for the nation's economic viability. It’s only five years until 2020, the year by which President Obama declared that the U.S. needs to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates to maintain its economic standing. But if politicians and policy makers don't get serious about poverty, the report's authors wrote, the next generation isn't likely to be “prepared to effectively compete in a global economy that is increasingly technology driven and dependent on a well-educated workforce.”