How many children are poor?

National Poverty Rate for Children

Data released in September 2011 by the Census Bureau indicate that 16.4 million children in the United States, 22.0 percent of all children, lived in poverty in 2010. More than six million of these children were under six years old. Of the 16.4 million poor children, nearly half, 7.4 million, lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as an annual income of less than half the official poverty line (i.e., $11,157 for a family of four) [1]. Poverty rates among children of color are much higher than among white children and have been so since the Census Bureau began making separate estimates by race (see figure).

Official national figures on poverty in the United States derive from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS). Because the old decennial census long-form questionnaires, which asked about household income, were given to a very large sample (one of every six households), the decennial censuses through 2000 provide good information about the percentage of children who were poor not only nationally but in geographic areas as small as census tracts (which on average contain 4,000 to 5,000 people) as well.

The American Community Survey (ACS) replaced the long form in 2006; therefore, the 2010 census did not include a long form and will not provide income and poverty estimates, for any age group. From 2006 forward, annual ACS estimates can be compared to the Census 1990 and Census 2000 estimates.

U.S. Census Bureau data for different ethnic and age-defined groups are widely available through the Bureau of the Census itself and can also be found through other Web sites, including the National Center for Children in Poverty, the Children's Defense Fund, the Future of Children, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count project.

Using CPS data, the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University has published reports on trends in regional estimates of the rate of poverty among children living in the United States. See, for example, Basic Facts About Low-Income Children, Children Under Age 18, Michelle Chau, Kalyani Thompi, and Vanessa R. Wight (October 2010); and Low-Income Children in the United States: National and State Trend Data, 1998-2008, Michelle Chau (2009) [2].

State Poverty Rates for Children

National statistics on child poverty are readily available, but it is difficult to obtain accurate, summary data concerning child poverty at the state and local levels, and among particular groups, because so few children are involved. Instead, we must put together statistics from a number of different data sources, some official, some produced by private agencies and organizations. To increase the accuracy and reliability of estimates for small areas and groups, agencies and organizations often resort to three-year averages.

The number of respondents within each state is too small to allow for the production of official state child poverty figures based on CPS data, so the Census Bureau recommends using the ACS for state-level child poverty estimates. Since 2006, the ACS has released subnational estimates of income and poverty for all places, counties, and metropolitan areas with a population of at least 65,000, as well as for the nation and the states. The Census Bureau recommends using the ACS for state-level estimates of the number in poverty and the poverty rate. ACS data are presented in one-year, three-year, and five-year (beginning in late 2010) estimates, which cover areas with populations over 65,000, over 20,000, and all areas, respectively.

The Children's Defense Fund publishes Children in the States Factsheets (data in the present Web version include those most current as of January 2011) on child well-being for each state. It ranks states according to indicators such as prenatal care and infant mortality, child poverty, and per-pupil expenditures in public schools.

There are at least two sources of annual estimates of child poverty in each state, the Kids Count project and the U.S. Census Bureau. The Kids Count project reports many indicators of American children's health and well-being each year for the entire country and for each state separately—see the complete Kids Count report for 2011. Kids Count has also created interactive online databases of statistics regarding children and families, including state profiles.

Census data assembled by Kids Count [3] show that the rate of poverty among children under 18 was, in the nation, 22 percent. Child poverty was over 10 percent in every state. In 2009, in five states over a quarter of all children under age 18 were poor; in 2010, eight additional states, thirteen states total, had child poverty rates above twenty-five percent. Nine states saw their percentage of children in poverty increase by more than 5 percentage points from 2008 to 2010. Between 2008 and 2010, the percent of children in poverty rose: five percentage points in Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Utah; six percentage points in Alabama, New Mexico, and Wisconsin; and seven percentage points in Nevada. In Wisconsin, 19 percent of children under 18 were poor.

The reports for Wisconsin—the WisKids Count Data Books, which show child poverty figures and other indicators of children's well-being—are available from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families and are posted on the Council's Web site. Since 2009, IRP has released annual Wisconsin Poverty Reports, which show state- and local-level poverty rates for all individuals and for children using ACS and state administrative data and a new Wisconsin Poverty Measure. The new, more expansive measure found a state child poverty rate (for 2009) of 13.4 percent (down from 17.1 percent in 2009 using the official measure). The reason for these countervailing trends is that low-income families with children experienced a considerable drop in earnings and cash income in the first year of the recession, but also benefitted considerably from the expansion of tax credits and food assistance benefits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.

The second source of data on child poverty rates within states is the Census Bureau, which regularly estimates state, county-level and school-district level poverty data from the annual CPS for very young children (under age 5) and for children aged 5-17 (2009 is the most recent year for these "small-area estimates," which were released in December 2010).


[1] Bureau of the Census, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010, Report P60-239.
[2] In October 2010, the NCCP also published Fact Sheets, Basic Facts About Low-Income Children: Children Under Age 3, Children Under Age 6, Children Aged 6-11, and Children Aged 12-17.
[3] The data for this measure come from the Population Reference Bureau, analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2000 and 2001 Supplementary Surveys and the 2002 through 2009 American Community Survey (ACS).