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Since the early part of the decade, the number of young children – those from birth to 5 years of age –  living in poverty in the United States has been climbing. While that number held steady in 2012, according to data released today from the U.S. Census, the poverty report is far from good news.

Our babies are still poor.

Nearly 6 million young children—one in four children under the age of 6—live in poor households. The rate is higher yet for young Black children and young Hispanic children.

What’s more, nearly half of young children live in low-income households that have to manage with incomes less than twice the poverty threshold.  To put this number into perspective, a low-income household has annual earnings of less than $46,100 for a family of four. This measure is a more accurate way of assessing the amount of income a family needs to make ends meet when considering a modern household budget with health care, child care, and other costs.

It’s the fourth straight year that approximately a quarter of young children under age six have been poor. Yet, inexplicably, these 6 million children have yet to provoke a national outcry.

Children growing up in poverty experience poorer health, higher incidence of developmental delays and learning disabilities, and greater hunger compared to their peers. The prevalence of poverty is highest during the earliest, most formative years of children’s lives. Infants and toddlers in poor families go without basic needs and endure hardships associated with poverty during a time of early development that lays the foundation for future growth and learning.

The experience of living in poverty matters for every one of these children. It matters for our country as well. Research shows poverty is a strong predictor of children's success in school and adult employment and earnings. So we all have a stake in these children. If nearly a quarter of our nation’s youngest children live in families without the means to support their healthy development, we all suffer. Poor health, educational attainment, and future earnings will harm our country and our future productivity as much as it will hamper individual’s success in life.

The consequences of childhood poverty are not surprising. It’s intuitive that children living in households with less means would experience deprivation that puts them behind their peers on a range of measures.

What’s less widely understood are the causes of poverty and the characteristics of poor families. While families with full-time earners are less likely to be poor, nearly 28 percent of poor families with related children under age 6 include a member who works full-time, year-round.

Not only are these families working in jobs that fail to provide sufficient wages to meet their household expenses, these parents are struggling to balance care for their children with the very real demands of low-wage work. The nature of employment among the working poor makes it difficult to raise children. Few low-wage parents have access to paid time off, making it especially challenging to care for newborn or sick children. Unstable and nonstandard work schedules, increasingly a characteristic of low-wage work, make securing stable child care difficult and complicate parents’ ability to balance home and work obligations. Stress associated with low-wage work may add to parental stress that has a negative impact on children’s development.

The high costs of child care contribute to poverty. Poor families paying for child care spend an estimated 30 percent of their income on child care, compared to 8 percent for families above poverty.

Today’s poverty numbers should be intolerable. Our youngest children are still poor, and we shouldn’t expect our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to do something to change that.  And it’s inexcusable that they are destined to spend the rest of their lives trying to play catch up. It’s time, as a country, to acknowledge that our future depends on all our children getting the supports they need for a strong start in life. We have policy solutions that support parents’ ability to work and provide for their families and that strengthen early foundations for children. These solutions include increasing access to quality jobs, paid family and medical leave, and affordable child care and early education, and they would go a long way to supporting children’s healthy development and helping to alleviate the impact of child poverty.

Our babies can’t wait.

Follow me on Twitter @HNMatthews


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