Decline in the US poverty rate: What made it happen?

Children, in particular, recently saw the first meaningful decline since 2000. The 2013 decline in poverty was the first meaningful decline for the overall population since 2006.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Poverty rate: 1959-2013

Poverty in America declined in 2013, and the poverty rate went down faster for children than for adults – which is notable not only because they are children but also because the poverty rate for children has long been higher than for adults.

The poverty rate for children fell nearly two full percentage points last year, from 21.8 percent to 19.9 percent, according to the US Census Bureau. The poverty rate for all Americans also declined, from 15 percent a year before to 14.5 percent.

It was the first meaningful decline in poverty for children since 2000, and for the overall population since 2006.

The declines are due largely to an improving job market, which has lifted the living standards not only for the newly employed but also for their children.

“Every child in this country matters. So while it is significant that child poverty decreased in this single year, the real takeaway is that it demonstrates poverty is not unsolvable,” Hannah Matthews of CLASP, a nonprofit group seeking to improve conditions for low-income people, wrote after the Census Bureau released the new numbers.

There’s room for a lot more progress. The US poverty rate is still above 2007 levels, and some 45 million Americans remain in poverty, about one-third of those being children.

The recent gains have been a long time coming. In the aftermath of the two most recent recessions, which began in 2001 and 2007, the revival of the job market has been notably slower than in past economic cycles. The poverty rate, especially for children, has echoed that challenge by remaining above pre-recession levels for longer than in past recoveries.

That pattern could be due partly to changes in the labor market, as forces such as globalization and technological change make it harder to quickly replace the jobs that disappear in a recession. High household debt, meanwhile, has held back the revival of consumer spending.

Some economists say another reason poverty has lingered at elevated levels is the widening of income inequality, which means the gains of economic growth are less widely shared than in the past.

Still, the data represent very important good news. And the improvement has probably continued in 2014 – something that next year’s census report should capture.

Last year, for children, an alternative Supplemental Poverty Measure was about two percentage points below the census’s traditional measure, also an encouraging sign. One reason for the difference in the two measures: The alternative census gauge factors in the effect of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) on family incomes.

By both measures, the poverty rate has looked high for several years. The alternative measure hasn’t been released for 2013.

How can progress continue? Further gains for the overall economy are a vital channel. Policies that strengthen economic growth or bolster support for low-income families could help.

“Top among the policies that will help working parents is making child care more affordable,” Ms. Matthews of CLASP says. “Congress is expected to pass legislation very soon to improve child-care quality and make receipt of child-care assistance a smoother process for parents.... We also need additional resources to expand access to child-care assistance.”

On the conservative side of the political spectrum, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin has proposed attacking poverty by encouraging a fund-what-works approach to social welfare programs – including granting more money and flexibility to states, which in turn could partner with local nonprofit groups “and provide personalized aid through case management.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Decline in the US poverty rate: What made it happen?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today