At the peak of economic boom times in 2000, the U.S. child-poverty rate reached a historic low of 16.2 percent. Even then, UNICEF ranked the United States as having the second highest child-poverty rate out of 26 rich countries. The United States had a child-poverty rate twice Germany’s, five times Sweden’s, and nearly ten times Denmark’s. The only country scoring worse than the United States was Mexico.
The picture is substantially bleaker today. The child-poverty rate reached 21.9 percent in 2011. For many children of color and for immigrant children, poverty rates are typically higher than the overall average, and they have worsened over the prolonged downturn. In the “good” economic times of 2000, the official Latino child-poverty rate was 28.4 percent. By 2011, that rate had jumped to 34.1 percent. For African American children, the child-poverty rate went from 31.2 percent in 2000 to 38.8 percent in 2011.
Poverty is also extreme among immigrant children. In 2011, one out of two children (49.6 percent) born in Mexico but living in the United States was impoverished. Middle Eastern–born children had a similarly high poverty rate, 46.5 percent. One out of three (35 percent) Caribbean-born children lived in poverty. One out of five (19.8 percent) children born in Asia experienced similar destitution.
The effects of the prolonged slump show up both in short-term deprivation and in its long-term consequences. These include homelessness, poor health, hunger, and joblessness.
A bursting housing bubble and high levels of unemployment have led to an increase in homeless families. “Among industrialized nations, the United States has the largest number of homeless women and children,” reports the National Center on Family Homelessness. “Not since the Great Depression have so many families been without homes.” In January 2013, the Coalition for the Homeless found 21,000 children in New York City’s homeless shelters. Other areas have also reported increases in their homeless populations since the start of the recession in 2007, with a 23 percent increase in Washington, D.C.’s family homelessness between 2008 and 2012.
It is difficult to measure the homeless population. Is a family that has lost a home to foreclosure but is now living with relatives homeless? A portion of the homeless population resides in shelters, but many sleep in places where the general public doesn’t see them and where enumerators have difficulty finding them. However we define homelessness, we likely underestimate its magnitude.
African Americans are typically found in the homeless population at three times their rate in the overall population. In 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that African Americans made up 37 percent of the population in shelters although they were only 12.4 percent of the total population. The downturn has hurt American families broadly, but African American families have experienced above--average rates of economic distress (high levels of unemployment, poverty, foreclosure), which will continue to cause them to be overrepresented among the homeless.
Homeless children are more likely than other children to suffer from asthma, respiratory and ear infec-
tions, and gastrointestinal
problems, as well as a range of emotional and behavioral problems. These early setbacks cause damage that reverberates through entire lives.
In as rich a country as the United States, no child should be hungry. But many children are, and the rates also vary by race. Food insecurity is defined as one or more family members not having enough to eat at times during the year. Latino children had the highest rate of residing in food-insecure households in 2011 at 17.4 percent. Black children had the second highest rate at 14.6 percent. The food--insecurity rate for white children was 6.7 percent, less than half the rates for Latino and black children.
At the center of this story are prolonged high levels of joblessness. Adult joblessness harms kids, and in poor families, teenagers enter labor markets with dismal prospects for good earnings or decent careers. While most middle-class children go on to college after high school, for many low-income children “adult” life begins in the teen years. Low-income teens who don’t attend college need to work to help their parents, support themselves, and in some cases help support a partner and children. For these low-income youth, a healthy teen labor market means that they can begin to transition into adult roles, while a weak labor market means that many will be in limbo after high school.
Because Latinos and blacks are less likely to be middle-class, they are less likely to go to college. In 2011, 56.2 percent of whites 20 to 21 years old were enrolled in higher education, compared to 45.7 percent of Latinos and 41.2 percent of blacks. A healthy teen labor market matters to a large share of youth of all races, but it is more important to blacks and Latinos.
Teen joblessness needs to be understood in terms of the employment rate—the percent employed out of the total population—rather than the unemployment rate. To be counted as unemployed, one has to be actively looking for work. When teens can’t find work, they often stop looking because they usually have a parent who can support them. Thus, the unemployment rate can substantially underestimate the labor-market difficulties faced by teens. The employment rate provides a better measure of whether the teen labor market is strong or weak.
Like child poverty, which was increasing even before the recession began, the teen job crisis has been going on for a decade. From 1970 to 2001, more than 40 percent of teens were employed. But by 2007, the teen employment rate had fallen to 35 percent. The recession and its aftermath greatly worsened the situation. In 2012, the teen employment rate was 26.1 percent, more than 14 percentage points below what is typical. With teen employment, we can see the usual racial disparities. White, Latino, and black teens all share the overall pattern of declining employment from the early 2000s and a catastrophic decline since 2007. However, white teens have the highest rates of employment followed by Latino teens and then black teens. In 2012, the teen employment rate for whites was 29 percent. For Latinos, it was 22.1 percent. For blacks, it was 16.6 percent.
We are not likely to improve the teen labor market until we improve the overall health of the American economy. With 12 million people unemployed, not enough jobs exist for workers of any age. Teens are generally the least experienced and least educated workers, and employers are not likely to hire them if they can find older workers at the same wage. Only when the labor market is tight will employers begin to hire teens at adequate rates.
In an economy where businesses are making strong profits and the stock market is high but job growth is meager, the federal government needs to step in to stimulate job growth. Infrastructure investments produce a big job-creation bang for each buck spent and help ensure a productive and competitive economy for our children in the future. A significant share of the jobs created from infrastructure investments will reach Latinos and blacks. Latinos receive jobs because they are overrepresented in the construction industry. Blacks receive jobs because infrastructure investments also increase the demand for workers in the transportation and manufacturing industries where black workers have decent representation.
On a per capita basis, the United States is richer than Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, yet, by relative poverty measures, the United States has a much higher rate of child poverty. Thus our child-poverty problem reflects the unequal distribution of income and wealth. The United States is rich enough to have a lower child-poverty rate than Germany, Sweden, and Denmark and maintain a high standard of living for all, but our political system has not allowed the development of the safety net, jobs, labor, and tax policies that would produce that result.
Though the recession is officially over, America’s children still suffer from high levels of poverty, hunger, homelessness, and joblessness. Like the rest of society’s benefits and adversities, these are not equally distributed by race. Each year that we tolerate high unemployment, we add to the permanent physical and emotional scars of large numbers of low-income children.