Sorting out the bleak data on children in poverty

September 16, 2011

Sorting out the bleak data on children in poverty -By Cynthia Boyd | Friday, Sept. 16, 2011

An iconic orange school bus rolled by my office window as I researched poverty data from the U.S. Census Bureau this week and I couldn't help but dig out the numbers of American children whose lives are affected by poverty. 

What I discovered stunned me. Twenty-two percent — more than one in five — of America's kids live in poverty, according to 2010 stats from the Bureau. That means, for instance, a family of two kids and two parents are living on an annual household income of $22,113. The tally rose 4 percentage points from 2007. 

And then there's what the policy wonks call "deep poverty," referring to those who live below half of that poverty-line number above, around about $11,000 for a family of four. (Imagine!) Almost one in 10 children, that is 9.9 percent of the nation's future, have slipped into this category.

We can only hope that these extremely poor kids eat free breakfast and lunch at school and their families are visiting emergency food shelves regularly. 

Of course joblessness is a major driver of the trend. "Besides last year, the closest deep poverty has gotten to the current rate was in 1993, at a rate of 6.2 percent," blogs Elise Gould for the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., that analyzes economic policy and its effect on low and middle-class workers.   

In Minnesota
And what of Minnesota's numbers? I called Kara Arzamendia, research director at the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, an organization that advocates for kids and tracks policies and programs that affects youngsters. 

While acknowledging this week's numbers, she's waiting for next week for her official Minnesota numbers. On Sept. 22, the Bureau releases another treasure trove of data from its American Community Survey (ACS). Those numbers are derived from a much larger sample of census demographics, about 3 million people, than the report this week, and so more accurate, Arzamendia says. 

This week's annual Current Population Report, compiled from Current Population Surveys (CPS), is fine for country-wide numbers for the entire population, she says, but discrepancies get bigger as you get down to subgroups at the state level.  

Last year, for instance, she says, the CPS estimated 216,000 Minnesota children in poverty for 17.3 percent while the ACS with more data determined 174,000 poor children at 14 percent of the population. (Nationwide, however, the poverty numbers varied only .7 percent.)   

"Another reason to wait is that with the ACS we can get data down to the county level for larger counties and some regional data, which tell us more about what's going on in Minnesota specifically. The ACS also has a lot more data on employment status, family structure, housing and other interesting stuff that can add a bit more to why these numbers look the way they do. All in all it is a lot more comprehensive," she said in an email to me.  

Arzamendia had expected the upcoming ACS numbers for child poverty in Minnesota to be up over last year, given the big national jump, but discovered that CPS figures show a decrease in the child poverty rate, from 17.3 percent in 2009 to 14.6 percent this year.  

"It will be interesting to see how the ACS plays out next week," she says. 

Racial and ethnic disparities
Children's Defense Fund will pay particular attention to racial and ethnic disparities among poor Minnesota kids, she says. Grouping all Minnesota children together in 2009, the poverty rate was 14 percent, but among African-American kids it was 47 percent, among Hispanic children 32 percent and among Asians 22 percent. White, non-Hispanic youngsters figured at 8 percent.

As bad as the need is, Arzmendia says, is the fact that all too many families don't realize they are eligible for what her organization calls "public work-support programs," programs such as SNAP, aka food stamps, childcare assistance, school meals or health care programs. 

The Children's Defense Fund offers an online screening tool called Bridge to Benefits which helps families quickly determine whether they are eligible for aid.