Rising child poverty rates could be a 'taste' of what's ahead

A new Census report shows child poverty up since 2007. With many benefits for the poor – such as the Earned Income Tax Credit – expiring at the end of the year, things could get worse.

In a troubling snapshot of the declining finances of Americans, considerably more school-age children are living in poverty than in the pre-recession year of 2007, the US Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

Of all 3,142 counties in the US, 653 counties saw significant increases in poverty for children ages 5 to 17, according to the 2010 Census Bureau survey. Only eight counties saw a decrease. Nationally, 19.8 percent of schoolchildren qualify as poor – and one-third of all counties now have child poverty rates above that threshold. About one quarter had child poverty rates significantly lower than the national average.

Among counties with at least 100,000 people, the highest child poverty rates were in Texas' Cameron County (44.9 percent) and Hidalgo County (44.6), Bronx County in New York (41 percent), Webb County in Texas (38.9), and Missouri's St. Louis County (38.6). Among all counties no matter their size, Georgia's Burke County (pop. 23,367) had the highest share of children in poverty, at 47.7 percent.

The Census information has important uses. The Department of Education uses the data in its formula for allocating more than $14 billion a year in federal funds, of which a significant amount is directed to school districts with high concentrations of poor students. Other programs, such as those that distribute federal money to libraries and school superintendents, also piggyback on the data, and even some states and counties use the information to divide up their funds.

The Education Department expenditures are “one of the main programs to allocate federal funds directly to school districts based on their school-age children,” says Wes Basel, branch chief of the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE), a program of the Census Bureau.

Unless the economy improves markedly, future data could be worse. Unless Congress acts, extended unemployment-insurance benefits will expire at the end of the year. So, too, will the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit. These all aid low income families. Congress will also need to decide whether to extend the payroll tax cut, which gives about an extra $1,000 to each household. This tax cut has been helping the middle class.

“Because many of these forms of added assistance are expiring, the rise in poverty shown here unfortunately may be a taste of what is to come,” says Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington. “We estimate the programs overall – and other recent initiatives – are keeping about 7 million people above the poverty line.”

According to the government, the official poverty line for a family of four is $22,314 a year in income.

At the same time as federal programs are in jeopardy, state and local budgets are also being cut, notes Mr. Sherman. “We are seeing cuts in social services like we have not seen in recent memory,” he says.

One state with a significant number of poor children is Florida, which ranks fourth in terms of school-age children in poverty, says Beth Davalos of the Families in Transition (FIT) program in Seminole County, which lies south of Orlando.

In Seminole County, the number of homeless schoolchildren, some 1,200 students, is up 30 percent over a year ago, according to Ms. Davalos.

A recent episode of CBS's "60 Minutes" profiled the FIT program, focusing on three families who lived in their vehicles while their children attended school. The Metzger family, for example, included a 16-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy living with their dad, an out-of-work carpenter, in the back of a truck. All their food was canned, and their only restrooms were in gasoline stations. Since the show aired, the FIT website has set up a way for people to contribute to the families.

“What is happening here is that the shelters are at 100 percent of capacity and people living with other people – sleeping on sofas and floors – can only do it for so long,” says Ms. Davalos. This leads them to either sleeping on the streets or in their vehicles.

The FIT program has some money to help families, but the money comes with certain stipulations. “The first question we ask is what is your income?” says Davalos. “If you don’t have some income, you are not eligible for funding,” she explains. “We are not going to be giving money to people who are going to be in the same situation a few months later.”

Davalos says homelessness is especially tough on children. Two weeks ago, Davalos found a family at a gas station. They had just been evicted from a motel where they had been living and had no money. They were still taking their 5 year old to kindergarten but the child was upset.

“That little 5 year old was so troubled over where it would be sleeping, it was not thinking about 2 + 2,” says Davalos, who put them back in the motel where they had been.

“It’s very stressful for kids with adult worries when they are supposed to be playing, dreaming, and learning,” she says.

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