Child Poverty Rate Could Be Cut in Half in Next Decade Following Proposals in New Expert Report

Thursday, Feb 28, 2019

In light of the many costs generated by child poverty for the United States, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine provides evidence-based policy and program packages that could cut the child poverty rate by as much as 50 percent while at the same time increasing employment and earnings among adults living in low-income families.

Among the members of the committee were two Princeton professors affiliated with Princeton’s Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy, including Eldar Shafir, the Class of 1987 Professor of Behavioral Science and Public Policy and the Inaugural Director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center. The other Princeton author, Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs and the Director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, considered it an honor to serve on the committe, “which was remarkable for the depth and breadth of expertise as well as for the range of political views represented.” 

Child poverty costs for the U.S. range between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually, based on the estimated value of reduced adult productivity, increased costs of crime, and health expenditures associated with children growing up in poor families. The committee found that more than 9.6 million children lived in families with annual incomes below the poverty line in 2015. “Capable and healthy adults are the foundation of any well-functioning society, but because millions of American children are in families living below the poverty line, this future is not as secure as it could be,” said Greg Duncan, chair of the committee that wrote the report and distinguished professor of education at the University of California, Irvine. “Evidence suggests a lack of economic resources compromises children’s ability to grow and achieve in adulthood, hurting them and the broader society.”

Shafir added “While some may be tempted to attribute poverty to personal failure, all agree that children are innocent victims. The work of this remarkable committee finds that good policy can significantly reduce childhood poverty, and that many good policies are not being implemented. What emerges is a moral, social, economic, and political obligation to do a lot more.” 

The committee reviewed existing data and identified the need for more data and evaluation. According to the report,

“Poor children develop weaker language, memory, and self-regulation skills than their peers. When they grow up, they have lower earnings and income, are more dependent on public assistance, have more health problems, and are more likely to commit crimes. Robust research evidence has shown that low income itself, rather than other conditions poor children face, is responsible for much of these negative impacts on children’s development.  Given the evidence that poverty harms children’s well-being, policies designed to reduce poverty by rewarding work or providing safety-net benefits might be expected to have the opposite effect. The report confirms this supposition, finding that many programs that alleviate poverty – either directly by providing income transfers, or indirectly by providing food or medical care – have been shown to improve child well-being.”

Of course, other contextual factors – such as neighborhood conditions, treatment within the criminal justice system, access to health services – are important in this analysis, as well.  The report takes these into account, identifying six major contextual factors policymakers and program administrators should consider when designing and implementing anti-poverty programs.

As Currie noted, "This report shows that dramatic reductions in child poverty are within our grasp, if we can only summon the political will to seize them.” Assuming that Congress, federal and state agencies, and the public agree that further reduction of child poverty is a priority goal for U.S. policy, the report recommends that a coordinating mechanism be put in place to ensure that well-considered decisions are made on new anti-poverty programs and policies. This mechanism would also ensure that the associated research and data needed for monitoring, evaluating, and further improvement are supported as well. The report recommends that the White House Office of Management and Budget coordinate an assessment of the report’s conclusions and put together an implementation plan.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Building an Agenda to Reduce the Number of Children in Poverty by Half in 10 Years — was sponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Foundation for Child Development, Joyce Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.