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

August 2019

By Richard Rodems, H. Luke Shaefer

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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

  • 38.4% of children lived in a household reporting some form of material hardship in 2011, compared to 31.1% of working age adults and 14.8% of seniors.
  • Children also lived in households with a greater depth of hardship. Among seniors, only 5% experienced hardship in more than one category, compared to 18.9% of children, an incidence that is nearly four times greater. This basic pattern of higher hardship rates for children and lower rates for seniors is consistent across all categories of hardship and across the component questions that make up each category of hardship.
  • Across the board, white and Asian children have the lowest rates of hardship. Black and Hispanic children have the highest rates of material hardship, with half of children in households reporting material hardship.
  • On every single measure, hardship rates for Black children are at least 1.3 times higher than those of white children.
  • On two measures, food hardship and housing hardship, they are more than twice as high. In terms of depth of hardship, 13.6% of white children live in households reporting multiple
    hardship categories, while the rate is roughly twice that for Black and Hispanic children.
  • A majority of children in households where the highest level of education is a high school degree or less reported hardship, and the rate was not that much lower for those in households with some college.
  • In relation to educational attainment, the overall hardship rate does not begin to dramatically fall until the bachelor’s degree category, and particularly for those with education
    beyond a four-year degree. However, nearly two-thirds of children fall outside of these well-educated households.

Policy implications

If policymakers want to target new resources to groups to alleviate hardship, they should look to working-age adults and especially children. Potential interventions include:

  • Expand programs to meet the needs of children in need: 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.
  • 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” that promotes safe sleeping for newborns and paid parental leave.
  • 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.

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