Five Years After Recession, Millions of Children Live in Poverty

A new report from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab and the advocacy organization First Focus found poverty, food insecurity, and housing instability are more prevalent than they were before the Great Recession. Moreover, according to the report, approximately 1.9 million more children live in poverty now than before the recession.

“Economists say the recession is over, but five years later, it’s still impacting millions of children,” said First Focus' President Bruce Lesley. “Where national leaders made smart policy choices, kids fared better — where they didn’t, kids are still struggling.”

A bipartisan organization dedicated “to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions,” the Washington, DC-based First Focus works to raise awareness of problems children face, develop policy solutions, and organizes advocate action designed to affect policymakers. PolicyLab, one of CHOP Research’s Centers of Emphasis, conducts interdisciplinary research to inform and influence policy changes.

PolicyLab’s Rachel Meadows, MPA, was the lead author of the report, “The Effect of the Great Recession on Child Well-Being.” First Focus commissioned this new paper from PolicyLab, which is a follow-up to a 2010 study of the same issues.

Defined as the period from December 2007 through June 2009, the Great Recession saw high unemployment, frequent foreclosures, and the downfall of several larger investment banks, such as Lehman Brothers. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, during the Recession the unemployment rate rose to nearly 10 percent, consumer spending fell, and in February 2009 alone more than 325,000 workers were laid off.

Now, more than five years after the end of the recession, approximately one third of American children still live in food insecure households, according to the PolicyLab report. More than 22 million children remain dependent on programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which offers help to low-income families. And while many children lost their housing during the worst of the Great Recession’s foreclosures, roughly 30 percent of children live in “cost burdened” households, in which a disproportionate percent of the family’s income is spent on housing.

The report did find some silver linings. Anti-poverty safety nets such as SNAP, tax credits, unemployment insurance, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program have helped lift millions of children out of poverty. Moreover, thanks to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides low-cost insurance to needy families, the number of children with health insurance increased despite the recession.

As of 2013, there were roughly eight million children enrolled in CHIP nationwide. However, CHIP’s funding has not been extended beyond 2015. And the safety net programs that proved so vital during the Great Recession face an uncertain future.

“Our research shows that investing in social safety net programs when times are good can have payoffs for ‘rainy days,’” said PolicyLab co-Director David Rubin, MD, MSCE. “We also know that millions of children are still struggling, and so we risk stalling or even reversing recovery by making budget and program cuts too soon.”

A recent decline in federal spending on children, combined with a reduction in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or stimulus) spending, combined with budget cuts across federal, state, and local governments means that many safety net programs may not be strong enough to weather another crisis.

“If the United States were to enter another economic downturn, it is not at all clear that the safety net programs, if suddenly needed again, would as effectively shield vulnerable children and families as they did during the Great Recession,” the report states.

In a blog post that accompanied the report’s release, Dr. Rubin and Kathleen Noonan, JD, the co-director of PolicyLab, note the report points to a need to confront income inequality. “Looking ahead, we must confront the growth in income inequality that has occurred in the last few decades, with more Americans living closer to the poverty line than ever before,” they write. “A true recovery would reverse the trends of growing poverty and widening income gaps.”

“If you look across the different aspects of a child’s life, this report makes one thing clear: whether it’s health, hunger, housing or abuse and neglect, there are more kids in harm’s way today than before the recession,” said First Focus’ Lesley. “The question for Congress is this: what are you going to do about it?”

To read more, see the full report, “The Effect of the Great Recession on Child Well-Being.”

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