Child poverty charts of the day

By Felix Salmon
November 18, 2011
new report on child poverty in America.

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These charts come from the Census Bureau’s new report on child poverty in America. The first one shows how it has been increasing rapidly since the recession hit — the crisis might have been caused by Wall Street, but it has had its most devastating effects among poor and blameless children.


This is a huge increase: between 2008 and 2010, the number of children in poverty increased by 3.2 percentage points, from 18.4% to 21.6%. Which means the number of children in poverty increased by more than 17%, to 15.7 million.

It’s worth mentioning that these are apples-to-apples comparisons using the old poverty figures rather than the new ones, and the new poverty figures show a lower child poverty rate. Under the Supplemental Poverty Measure, the number of children in poverty is “only” 13.6 million. But I’m reasonably sure that if and when that measure gets calculated for 2008 and 2009, it’ll show a rate of increase just as high as we’re seeing in the old one. And I doubt the distribution across the country would be any different, either:


Does anybody, this election season, have a plan for reducing the rate of child poverty, especially in the south? In ten different states, including Texas, one child in every four is born into poverty. This is obviously unacceptable — but it’s equally obviously being swept beneath the political carpet. Not only don’t poor kids vote, their parents don’t tend to vote much either. And few of them live in swing states. And, fixing this kind of thing takes far more political capital than anybody seems to have spare right now. So expect the child-poverty crisis to continue to get worse rather than better. No matter what happens to the economy as a whole.


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“Does anybody, this election season, have a plan for reducing the rate of child poverty, especially in the south?”

We could perhaps redefine the poverty level? In China, you are not living in poverty if you have more than $1/day of income. (Somehow they still haven’t managed to eliminate poverty.) Adopting that standard would do wonders…

Alternatively, we could act to aggressively restrict immigration. Many immigrants, especially in the South crossing the border illegally from Mexico, live in poverty. If we were to adopt European-style immigration policies, we would dramatically cut the rate of child poverty in this country.

Of course neither of these “solutions” would do anything to help anybody. If that is your goal, then let’s invest in growth and jobs.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Well, the people who could be interested in reducing child poverty –young activists, liberal Democrats– seem to obsessed with the other end of the spectrum: the Top 1%.

This is the kind of thing that baffles me more about Occupy Wall Street: huge focus on bankers, little or no attention to the bottom 10%. That’s weird.

Inequality is bad, but poverty is worse.

Posted by Hernanii | Report as abusive

It seems to me that OWS is focusing on how government and the American economy is increasingly benefiting a small group of people at the expense of everyone else. It seems to me that the best way, long term, to help the bottom 10% is by having a more equal economy. Welfare programs can alleviate poverty, but they don’t do much to get people out of it.

Actually, I’d say that the bottom 10% is a big part of the liberal agenda at the moment. Many progressives are upset that governments, especially at the state and regional level, are cutting back on those programs that matter to people in the bottom 10%.

One last point is that it makes sense to target the 1%–corporation and the uber-wealthy are taking actions to make the government work in their favor, often harming the rest of the population. Some of this behavior is clearly immoral and corrupt, other behavior can be construed as simply acting in their best interests. The problem is that our current government doesn’t have a way for the rest of the population to have a voice, to influence the government in their favor.

Hemanii, it sounds like you haven’t been to visit OWS yet–it might be worth stopping by to see what people are actually saying.

Posted by MKCurious | Report as abusive


I’ve been many times at Zuccotti over the last weeks, spending a few hours each time. Having said that, I still don’t buy your argument.

First, there is no proof that rising inequality harms the economy as a whole (don’t take my word for it, take Krugman’s). Second, you can say “long term” because you are pretty comfortable sitting on your chair. You can wait.

Posted by Hernanii | Report as abusive

“First, there is no proof that rising inequality harms the economy as a whole.”

Perhaps, but rising inequality — or the lack of opportunity for young adults — has a clear link with social unrest. And revolution is pretty bad for the economy.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive


There’s a very good reason to focus on the 1%. These child poverty rates might just as well be stand-ins for the overall poverty rate which, for a country as wealthy as the US, are disgustingly high. You may not have noticed but the 1%’s income has skyrocketed over the last 40 years whilst everybody else’s has flatlined. That has happened because the 1% has arrogated an increasing share of the national income for themselves at the expense of the other 99%. Personally, I’m not in favor of welfare or income REdistribution. Resetting income distribution, on the other hand seems to be what we really need. Yeah, that means that, for example, CEOs go back to making, say, 24X the wages of their average workers instead of 262X the average wage (they really aren’t worth that much). It means raising the minimum wage to a living wage at, yes, the expense of management. The whole object of OWS is to make our income distribution fairer.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive


“Rising inequality” and “lack of opportunity for young adults” are different and pretty unrelated phenomena. You can have an equal but stratified society or a somewhat unequal but very dynamic society (as the US used to be). For me, the good fight is to end poverty and increase social mobility. That’s how you end up with lower inequality. But poverty first. Not, as MKCurious says, “in the long term”.

And I’ll say this. OWS people are much more similar to “bankers” than they are to poor people. Protestors and Wall Street employees live fairly similar lives. Especially when compared to a real poor person’s life. Put a banker, an “indignado” and a poor dude in a row and the outlier is not the banker –it’s the poor dude.

Posted by Hernanii | Report as abusive

Funny that you post the state map but do not post the following (from your first link)…

“The poverty thresholds are updated annually to allow for changes in the cost of living using the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). THEY DO NOT VARY GEOGRAPHICALLY.”

According to Felix’s map, if you are a kid living with 2 parents you are better off (not in poverty) living off of $18k a year in San Francisco compared with (in poverty) living off of $16k a year living in Hattiesburg. ata/threshld/index.html

Posted by Jaaay | Report as abusive

@ Hernanii: “First, there is no proof that rising inequality harms the economy as a whole (don’t take my word for it, take Krugman’s”.

You are saying this while the US democratic agenda is hijacked by lobbies ? While taxpayers money goes to bankers’ bailouts instead of schools ? While defense is roaming the national budget and some net receivers have so many houses they can’t count them anymore ? Do you understand how the world goes around ?

Sorry, but I am stunned. You probably meant right.

Posted by FBreughel1 | Report as abusive

@Hemani, it is impossible to prove or disprove that rising inequality is harming the economy, so you need to extrapolate a little. The less money that more people have to spend means there will be less money coursing through the economy, unless the wealthy spend an ever-increasing percentage of their income (which they don’t do). Additionally, it isn’t even possible for the wealthy to spend all of their increased income, as some ofit is in the form of accumulated profits that businesses hold.

When income is hoarded, the economy suffers. The economy is completely dependent on money passing from one person to another, and when that slows down, the economy shrinks.

Saying rising inequality is bad for the economy is not equivalent to saying equality is good, in fact, if everyone in a market-driven economy earned the same amount, progress would slow down. But that doesn’t mean that we should embrace, or even accept, a society where an increasingly larger share of income is absorbed by a smaller segment of the population. That will be fatal, irregardless of what Krugman says.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

@KenG_Ca and everybody,

I think the most important thing you are overlooking is that the economy and the financial markets are (mostly) not a zero-sum game. When the stock market goes up, a lot of people get technically richer with money that didn’t exist before. It’s not that it was taken “from” the 99% or made “at the expense” of the 99%. Not at all. That explains (most of) the recent big spikes you see in the incomes of the Top 1% in 2005-2007. They are (mostly) financial (or “paper”) gains. If OWS were to use the latest data on those charts, it would show that in 2008 and 2009 the income of the Top 1% fell down sharply, for the same reason: financial losses. Did the Top 1% lose this income for the benefit of the 99%? Alas, they didn’t. At least I didn’t get any checks. So, non-zero. Try it.

In any case, I don’t “defend” inequality, and I’d love to see more financial regulation on leverage, proprietary trading and securitization, etc. I’m just saying that my list of public policy priorities goes like this:

1. Poverty
2. Social Mobility
3. Inequality

This is, for me, a reality-based roadmap for prosperity. In recent years, Democrats have been making fun (and rightly so) of the looney and and religious and non-scientific ways in which some Republicans defended their ideas. When I read the 99% literature, I sometimes feel the same way. I feel I’m being preached at.

Posted by Hernanii | Report as abusive

Hemani, the economy is not zero sum, but close to it. There is a limit to how much it can expand, and that limit is equal to work expended by humans + value extracted from earth – assets consumed. Effectively, the total wealth in the world, adjusted for inflation, doesn’t grow faster than the population, it justs shifts around. The dollar amount may grow faster, but that’s inflation, other than transient increases, which ultimately get smoothed out over time.

Currency is an artificial quantity of measurement, and to make it even less clearly measurable, its value is relative to other things, and always changing. It is not static and absolute like a unit of time or mass. So when you say people get richer when the stock market goes up, it is only relative to those who haven’t bought the stocks.

you may not be defending inequality, but you said when it increases it doesn’t hurt the economy, but it does. Poverty and limited social mobility are symptoms and manifestations of rising inequality.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“Does anybody, this election season, have a plan for reducing the rate of child poverty, especially in the south?”

Sure. Why don’t we try the John Edwards plan? Or make it even bigger? Let’s double the EITC, give absolutely everyone Section 8 vouchers and food stamps at $2,000 a month.

That would, I think we’d all agree, alleviate quite a lot of poverty.

However, it wouldn’t change the number defined as in poverty above by one single person, adult or child. Because what that number is is the number of people in poverty *before* we try to alleviate poverty.

I know I’ve said this here before but it’s still darn true. US poverty numbers don’t include the things we do to alleviate poverty. You just cannot use them in hte way Felix has just done.

Posted by TimWorstall | Report as abusive

@KenG, this line is complete nonsense: “Effectively, the total wealth in the world, adjusted for inflation, doesn’t grow faster than the population, it justs shifts around.”

Do you really think that the total wealth per capita in the world today is no different than it was in 1500? A family living below the poverty line in the US today is wealthier than the nobility from 1500 in every way that matters. Quality of food, housing, medical care, entertainment, transportation, education…

Obviously this is an extreme example, but I see people glorifying the 1950s and believing it! The technological innovation and increased productivity since 1950, since 1980, has been immense. We can be better off today, even if our bank accounts aren’t any larger. Imagine what you would have been willing to pay in 1980 for the opportunity and convenience of the Internet, or a Prius, or an iPad, or (especially) access to modern medical care? Turning that around, your middle-class lifestyle from 1980 could be funded today for around $30k for a family of four.

Even if you meant to exclude technological innovation, your statement is still wrong. We create wealth every time we do something useful. We destroy wealth (and more than a few brain cells) every time we waste an hour watching “Reality TV”. You want more wealth? Put people to work doing something useful!!!!

If unemployment/underemployment today is around 20%, then we could increase our national wealth substantially simply by putting these people to work. I know I’ve said it before, but the national wealth depends solely on the work accomplished, NOT on the wages received for that work. If you perform a useful job, then SOMEBODY is richer. You and I both believe that the produce should be shared more freely, but please don’t say the creation of wealth is a zero-sum game. That is very wrong, and has serious negative implications.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

TFF, no I don’t think it is much different. The human race extracts objects from the environment and adds work to it, and that increases the value of everything that is created, and that is proportional to the number of people who have lived on the planet. But if you measure wealth by how much money people have, the total amount that is in circulation can only increase by work creating more things of value (e.g. pulling gold out of the ground, since that is what the currency is allegedly based on), or printing it up out of nowhere. And if you print it up with nothing to back it up, it doesn’t really exist.

The fact that people live better today than in 1500 is not a measure of wealth, but of how humans have adapted to our environment, i.e., the technology we have created. If you want to include the impact of technology on money, technology also destroys value; the cell phone sitting next to me that costs $500 destroyed the value of computers thousands of times its size and cost, When new technology is created (work + elements extracted from the earth), other technological creations are obsoleted. We’re just constantly adapting to our environment, and the sum total of all value constantly gets redistributed whether people like it or not, but it doesn’t really increase a whole lot.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I think you need a Bill Clinton type of politician to go at this problem. A Democrat from the upper South (most likely AR, KY or WV) with a populist message that can effectively use class warfare to fight against identity politics. Unfortunately I doubt that’s going to happen, although the 99% frame makes it seem a little more possible.

Posted by tuckerm | Report as abusive

TFF, I don’t think we disagree much, except on the definition of wealth. Your definition, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, is not the one trotted out by defenders of the status quo, when they want to cut taxes for the wealthy, because they create “jobs” and “wealth”. I am constantly reading about how the “wealth creators” are lionized, and how the government hinders the creation of wealth, and in the context that they are using it, there is no “creation of wealth”. They believe that when real estate prices rise, wealth is created, and you know that isn’t true.

“national wealth depends solely on the work accomplished, NOT on the wages received for that work”. I agree with that, but that is not what other people mean when they talk about the creation of wealth.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Isn’t measuring wealth (on the societal level) by money a pretty silly concept in the first place? As somebody asked recently, “If you lost your wallet over THERE, then why are you looking over HERE?” Money simply lubricates the creation and exchange of goods.

As for gold? The only thing sillier than pretending that paper is worth something is pretending that a certain comparatively useless metal is worth something. If I had a million dollars, converted into gold at the current prices, it would form a very shiny (and heavy) cube roughly 4 inches on a side. I could put that cube in front of me and cackle, “I’m rich! Rich like Midas! Rich, rich, rich!!!” Then after a while I would get hungry, and would start searching for somebody willing to trade me a hamburger for that four-inch cube.

Obsolete technology isn’t necessarily useless. One of my jobs at school is to recycle used technology into serviceable learning tools. Other institutions have been very generous with their six-year old “obsolete” technology, from which we tease another 4-6 years of life.

That said, most wealth is immediately consumed (and nothing lasts forever). Our infrastructure and capital goods may have a useful lifetime measured in decades, but without continued investment they depreciate. The key to societal wealth is to increase the supply of capital goods (including education) faster than they depreciate, and to utilize existing capital goods to the greatest effect.

Shouldn’t we lionize “wealth creators”? There will always be some who create more wealth than they consume, which allows other to consume more than they create. We lionize the great teacher for making her students lives brighter. We lionize the innovative businessman for employing thousands and enriching the lives of millions. We lionize Snookie for …um… well, I’m sure there must be SOME good reason for that.

Never confuse money with wealth. Never confuse the accumulation of hoarded money with wealth created. Certainly don’t confuse “price” and “value”, whether talking about consumables or assets.

The real estate bubble destroyed wealth, damaged wealth creation, by greatly expanding loan volume and mortgage interest (money flowing OUT of household pockets into the bank coffers) and by sucking talent away from more productive occupations. (How many Wall Street bankers does it take to change a lightbulb? Wall Street bankers don’t change lightbulbs. They wait for somebody else to change the lightbulb and swing a profit on the trade.)

I’ve been wondering: What would our economy look like if companies gave greater emphasis to the top line than to the bottom line? (Not to the exclusion of profits, but perhaps shifting the balance between the two?)

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

“Isn’t measuring wealth (on the societal level) by money a pretty silly concept in the first place?”

Well, yeah, but that doesn’t stop most people from doing it. Look, I’m with you, but when the public debate turns to the creation of wealth, they’re not using your yardstick. They use valuations of publicly traded companies and real estate. So I suggest we don’t go down the route of discussing wealth creation when trying to transform society. It’s a dead end.

You think we should lionize wealth creators? Like who? Guys running private equity firms that “create wealth” by borrowing money to buy profitable companies, and then load them down with debt to pay off their loans, and extract wealth for themselves? Guys like Donald Trump? I’m guessing you mean people who start new businesses that grow and create jobs, but those are not the people clamoring for tax breaks, waving the “I am a wealth creator” flag.

Sure, not all obsolete technology is useless, but the value of it has declined, and it will eventually be useless. Six year old computers are still very useful, but not 20-year old ones.

To your last question: I think it would be a mixed bag. A lot of companies chase revenue just for market share, and it doesn’t make the company stronger, but it does reduce costs for the customers. If they emphasized the top line by expanding their product or service offerings, I think that would be great – you know, like recycling profits to grow business.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

“You think we should lionize wealth creators? Like who?”

The people who strive to make the world a better place, putting that goal on par with their earnings. Some of them are entrepreneurs. Some of them are government employees. Spans the gamut.

I agree with you that we should challenge the self-serving claims of those who SAY they are wealth-creators. But this doesn’t invalidate the concept, simply their right to own it.

“I suggest we don’t go down the route of discussing wealth creation when trying to transform society. It’s a dead end.”

Why not co-opt the concept? A direct-employment bill could easily be described as “wealth creation”. You are taking unemployed people, underutilized resources, and employing them to create wealth. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot better than “pork barrel spending”? Of course, you would then need to answer questions about the value of the wealth created. And challenges that there might be other ways to spend the money to create greater value. But wouldn’t those be good conversations to have?

“If they emphasized the top line by expanding their product or service offerings, I think that would be great – you know, like recycling profits to grow business.”

We could use some of that in this economy, yet I’m seeing trends in the opposite direction (pushing margins over volume, shutting down less-profitable lines).

Just a thought — I don’t know if that is THE answer or even part of one.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

The problem I have with building up people who make the world a better place is that they are human, and prone to make mistakes. And if you celebrate those people and what they have worked for, both will get discounted when their flaws are revealed. The media likes/seems to need to build people up and then tear them down. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but then that debate drowns out the real issues.

“Why not co-opt the concept?” Because it requires your audience to invest time to understand issues, and they don’t want to do that. I don’t think you can win that PR battle, the forces opposing a direct employment bill will spend more to twist it into a debate on socialism, deficits, and higher taxes.

“shutting down less profitable lines” has always been an issue, as it is subsidized by the tax laws. If corporations were able to immediately deduct the cost of capital investments (like a factory), they would lose much of their incentive for shutting down a marginally profitable plant years later, as they couldn’t write it down again. Let them take the deduction at the time of the investment, rather than amortize it over many years, and there’s no incentive to shut it down, and create an after-tax profit because they have a paper loss on the write down.

If we effectively penalize the accumulation of profits, and reward the reinvestment or distribution of them instead, we will see more jobs created, or at least profits will get taxed and then the government can invest them. But you’ve heard me say this before.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

Good points, KenG, and an interesting discussion.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Thanks, TFF, I enjoyed it also.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

So sad to realixe that child poverty is growing. And it’s only in America. It’s really depressing to think of Africa, for example.
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Posted by Gabrielle88 | Report as abusive