Yesterday the U.S. Census released data on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in 2011. By now you’ve seen the headlines: the poverty rate has leveled off at 15 percent after three years of increasing and remains at the highest level since 1993, while median income has declined by 1.5 percent, which means that the middle class continues to feel the strain of the bad economy. More people are covered by health insurance (1.4 million more than in 2010), which is certainly welcome news, since the number of people with health insurance has been going down for the last 10 years. But while poverty has leveled off, it remains at historically high levels, and children continue to be disproportionately impacted. We could be doing a lot more.
- 16.1 million children in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2011—that’s more than one in five children.
- Young children in families headed by a single mother were hardest hit: 57.6 percent of children under the age of 6 in families headed by a single mother live in poverty.
- Over 7 million children live in deep poverty, subsisting on less than $1,000 a month for a family of four ($11,511 annually) – that’s 9.8 percent of all children in the U.S.
- And deep poverty is much more prevalent among very young children, with 11.8 percent of all children under the age of 6 living in families with incomes below half the poverty level.
We know social benefits can help lift people out of poverty. One example is Social Security benefits. Social Security benefits have lifted 14.5 million adults age 65 and older out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reduced poverty for 3 million children, even though they’re still included in the 16 million children living in poverty reported in the Census poverty data since it excludes income from the EITC. That’s a start (a good one).
The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program could do more. The program provides states with resources to support low-income families so children can be cared for in their own homes and helps parents connect to employment. How well is it working? Not as well as it could be. States choose how they use TANF resources and sets benefit levels, which are currently insufficient to lift most families without other sources of income out of deep poverty, never mind out of poverty altogether.
States could do more. States could increase TANF benefit levels and allow families on TANF who are employed to keep more of their earnings. Many families living in poverty are not accessing TANF benefits at all, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States could reduce the number of families without income from work or TANF benefits by helping families enroll quickly on TANF and meet program requirements.
States could also do more to help people on TANF connect to employment. States predominately rely on a narrow set of tools to help people on TANF prepare for, and enter, the workforce. For too many families, particularly in an economy with high unemployment, these tools simply aren’t enough.
But there’s been some progress on this front. In July, the Administration released an Information Memorandum inviting states to submit applications for waivers. Under these waivers, states can test new strategies to increase the number of families on TANF who transition to employment. This is an opportunity for states to improve how they use welfare resources to help reduce the number of children living in deep poverty.
And that’s a big step in the right direction, because perhaps the most effective strategy to lift children out of poverty is to help their parents find employment.