Employment Alone is Not Enough for America's Low-Income Children and Families

Cauthen, Nancy K.; Lu, Hsien-Hen

Nearly 40 percent of American children live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—the amount that research suggests is needed for most families to be economically self-sufficient. Currently, 200 percent of the federal poverty level is $36,800 a year for a family of four.3 Most families with income below 200 percent of the poverty level—low-income families—have at least one working parent. Although families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty level are not classified officially as poor, many face material hardships and financial pressures similar to those faced by families who are officially poor. Missed rent payments, utility shut offs, inadequate access to health care, unstable child care arrangements, and running out of food are not uncommon for families with income below 200 percent of the poverty level. Even though 85 percent of children in low-income families have at least one working parent, many of these families cannot get ahead simply by working more. Low wages, work-related expenses, the loss of public benefits, and the bite of payroll and other taxes make it difficult for low-income working families to work their way to long-term economic security. Without additional supports, nearly 40 percent of American children have parents who have little chance of working their way to economic self-sufficiency anytime soon. This report examines the progress made by low-income children and families in the 1990s, when child poverty declined substantially. It focuses on the important role that public policies have played in supporting low-wage employment. But it also highlights the limits of low-wage employment—low-wage work, by itself, is insufficient to move families from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. The economic downturn, rising unemployment, and cuts in public work supports have compounded the challenges faced by low-income families. The report concludes with suggestions for how policymakers can help low-income families make financial progress.

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National Center for Children in Poverty
National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University
Published Here
July 8, 2010