Child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world

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A man walks with two children outside the Poverello House homeless shelter Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/Scott Smith)

The United States ranks near the bottom of the pack of wealthy nations on a measure of child poverty, according to a new report from UNICEF. Nearly one third of U.S. children live in households with an income below 60 percent of the national median income in 2008 - about $31,000 annually .

In the richest nation in the world, one in three kids live in poverty. Let that sink in.

The UNICEF report pegs the poverty definition to the 2008 median to account for the decline in income since then - incomes fell after the great recession. so measuring this way is an attempt to assess current poverty relative to how things stood before the downturn.

With 32.2 percent of children living below this line, the U.S. ranks 36th out of the 41 wealthy countries included in the UNICEF report. By contrast, only 5.3 percent of Norwegian kids currently meet this definition of poverty.

More alarmingly, the share of U.S. children living in poverty has actually increased by 2 percentage points since 2008. Overall, 24.2 million U.S. children were living in poverty in 2012, reflecting an increase of 1.7 million children since 2008. "Of all newly poor children in the OECD and/or EU, about a third are in the United States," according to the report. On the other hand, 18 countries were actually able to reduce their childhood poverty rates over the same period.

The report finds considerable differences in childhood poverty at the state level. New Mexico, where more than four in ten kids live in poverty, has the highest overall rate at 41.9 percent. In New Hampshire only one in eight kids lives in a poor household, the lowest rate in the nation. Poverty rates are generally higher in Southern

states, and lower in New England and Northern Plains states.

Map: Childhood poverty rates, by state

"Between 2006 and 2011, child poverty increased in 34 states," according to the UNICEF report. "The largest increases were found in Nevada, Idaho, Hawaii and New Mexico, all of which have relatively small numbers of children. Meanwhile Mississippi and North Dakota saw notable decreases."

There are some limits to the usefulness of benchmarking poverty in relation to a country's median income. The median income in the U.S. is going to be very different than that in say, Estonia. So it means something very different to say that a given person is making 60 percent of median income in the former as opposed to the latter.

It's also important to note that a household income of $30,000 puts you in roughly the richest 1.23 percent of the world's population. The report doesn't deal with the type of extreme poverty you see in the poor and developing worlds, where roughly 2.7 billion people are trying to get by on less than two dollars per day.

But UNICEF's relative poverty measure is still useful in that economies are relative, too. Thirty thousand dollars goes much, much further in Eritrea than it does in Kansas. And while you might be able to get by - barely - raising a family on $30,000 in rural Kansas, try doing that in any of the nation's pricey urban and suburban areas, where many of America's poor actually live.

For the richest country in the world to also have one of the world's highest childhood poverty rates is, frankly, an embarrassment. Like our high infant mortality rate. child poverty in the U.S. reflects the failure of policymakers to seriously grapple with the challenges facing the most vulnerable members of society.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.


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