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Many of the Kids Are Not Alright: Material Hardship Among Children in the United States

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By Richard Rodems and H. Luke Shaefer


According to the most recent data available from the nationally-representative Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), as of 2011, 38.4% of children lived in households reporting at least one form of material hardship, such as food insecurity, inability to pay essential household bills, inability to access medical care due to cost, or substandard and overcrowded housing. This is well above the rate considered to be in poverty by official estimates (17.5% as of 2017). Children were more likely to live in households experiencing material hardship than working age adults, and were two to four times more likely to be in households reporting material hardship than seniors. This is true for every form of hardship examined, as well as for the depth of hardship. Among children, racial disparities in rates of material hardship are stark. Among Black and Hispanic children, half lived in households that report material hardship, whereas rates among white and Asian children were under 30%.

Key Findings

  • Children are 2.6 times as likely to live in a household with any hardship compared to seniors.
  • Children are two times as likely to live in a household with one hardship compared to seniors.
  • Children are 3.8 times as likely to live in a household with multiple hardships compared to seniors.

Policy Recommendations

  • Expand programs to meet the needs of children in need. One approach to meet the needs of the children highlighted above would be to expand existing programs both in their targeting (broaden to capture all children in need) and increase their level of support. This would be expanding both the scope and depth of publicly-funded programs that help families pay for food, health care for children, rent, and energy bills. Yet the current analysis might suggest that a more effective approach might seek to mirror the structures put in place for seniors, which are more universal and rely more on cash transfers.
  • Introduce a child allowance. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences highlighted a variety of paths forward for reducing child poverty, including packages of policies that include the introduction of a child allowance. A child allowance, sometimes delivered in the form of a universal child tax credit, is a cash supplement given to all families with children to help them meet their needs. Such programs are commonplace in other advanced, wealthy countries but not historically a part of the U.S. social safety net.16 A truly universal child allowance may potentially reduce this racial gap in hardship rates, in contrast to earlier episodes of American welfare state expansion which widened such gaps.
  • Explore a suite of early childhood programs. The People’s Policy Project recently released a report outlining a full suite of pro-family policy changes that could be made to improve the material conditions of all families. This approach includes creating universal child care and pre-K programs, a universal children’s health insurance program, free school lunches, a child allowance, and other policies such as the “baby box,” and paid parental leave. This approach moves beyond expanding means tested programs or generating a new income support programs and more fully envisions American families enjoying the type of social safety net found in other affluent societies.
  • Consider tax-exempt savings programs for children. In contrast to policies and programs which aim to supplement income or provide direct goods and services, some scholars have called for a universal system of “baby bonds” in order to help close the racial wealth gap. Such an approach could, over the long haul, address the hardship gaps identified above in a way that is more durable to shifting political priorities.

Download PDF of full policy brief