Policy Resource

The Quiet Crisis: One in Four Infants and Toddlers Lives in Poverty

Sep 14, 2011

In the midst of the uproar over our nation’s deficit crisis and jobs crisis, Census Bureau data released yesterday paints a picture of a quiet crisis: more than one in four infants and toddlers in America lives in poverty – 3.2 million of them, to be exact, or 26% of all children under age 3.

This poverty measurement means that, for example, a baby in a family with two parents and a sibling would have a family income of $22,113 or less. The poverty rate for all children under 18 is 22%, testament that poverty in the U.S. really does have a child’s face. Children account for 35.5% of poor people but only 24.4% of the total population.

This grim economic situation for young children is both broad and deep. Data for related children under age 6 in families (which generally track closely with data for infants and toddlers) show that 47% of young children live in families with incomes at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty threshold. That’s almost half of all young children living in families without enough income to meet their basic needs. Many young children are in deep poverty: 46% of related children under age 6 who are poor live in families with incomes that are actually at or below 50% of the poverty line.

What does it mean that more than a quarter of American infants and toddlers are spending their earliest years in poverty? The science of early childhood development tells us that during the first three years of life the brain undergoes dramatic development as the child acquires the ability to think, speak, learn and reason. Our earliest experiences help shape the architecture of our brains, forming the foundation – either sturdy or fragile – for all that follows. Early adverse experiences can literally alter the architecture of the developing brain, limiting a child’s potential. For young children growing up in poverty, these adverse experiences can include decreased access to good nutrition, fewer enriching learning experiences, and heightened stress, which can impair the relationships that nurture a baby’s development. Thus, the timing of a baby’s experience with poverty is important because this rapid period of brain development makes them particularly sensitive to poverty’s ill effects. These effects can follow them all through life, placing them at greater risk for later school failure, behavior problems, and health problems as adults.

What helps? Making it possible for their parents to find jobs, for one thing. When we look at families with children under age 6, having no workers in the family virtually guarantees living in poverty. 89% of all such families are poor. The rate for families headed by single women is 93%. Put one family member to work full time for a full year, and the poverty rate for all such families drops to 11.5%. The rate for families headed by single women falls to 21%, showing that parents can work hard and still not pull their families over the poverty threshold. All this suggests that job creation should be at the top of the legislative agenda and policymakers should seriously consider President Obama’s proposal.

Children who face such adversity need more. The Census figures reveal the importance and success of another government support for young children’s development: health insurance. Nine of every ten infants and toddlers have health insurance. Two of every five infants and toddlers (41%) are covered by Medicaid – making it a vital avenue to the all-important pediatric care in the first years of life. Our challenge now is to cover the 9.5% of babies who lack insurance.

Other programs help to fill in the resources that poor families are not able to give their children. Programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Unemployment Insurance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit help cushion the impact of the recession and lift families out of poverty. Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides special nutrition for pregnant women and babies. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides income and other supports. Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) helps keep small bodies warm. Child care and Early Head Start, which reaches only a handful of infants and toddlers, help parents work and put babies and their families on the right path for positive early learning experiences. And the list goes on.

These programs are often called the “social safety net”. That’s a misnomer. They are actually the “social scaffolding” that supports healthy and positive development for infants and toddlers (as well as older children) who find themselves having to navigate a cradle full of adverse experiences. Tear it down and we risk undermining the healthy development of a vast segment of young children.

Yet, we are at risk of doing just that. Some of these programs’ appropriations may be cut as a result of the $917 billion in discretionary savings included in the Budget Control Act (i.e., the debt ceiling bill). Many, particularly those like Medicaid with mandatory funding, may be targeted as the Joint Select Committee hunts for $1.2 trillion in savings by Thanksgiving.

The deficit reduction process needs an infusion of the concept of investment. Economics Professor and Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown that the rate of return on human capital investment is greatest in programs that target the earliest years. The Joint Select Committee should heed him – because the implication of a quarter of infants and toddlers living in poverty and almost half of young children living in families who can’t make ends meet is not just about limiting the potential of millions of small children. It is about limiting our nation’s ability to compete in the global economy in the future. The infants and toddlers of today will form the backbone of our nation’s workforce at mid-century. We cannot afford to let today’s quiet crisis steal so much potential.

For More Information:

Krutsinger and N. Tarr. Poverty Fact Sheet: Implications for Infants and Toddlers. ZERO TO THREE, 2011.

Pathways Winter 2011 edition on “Does Poverty Get Under the Skin? The Effects of Deprivation on Blood, the Brain, and the Body.”

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