For this article, the reporter worked closely for five months with researchers from a nonpartisan group to document the decline in child poverty and the forces pushing it lower.
WASHINGTON — For a generation or more, America’s high levels of child poverty set it apart from other rich nations, leaving millions of young people lacking support as basic as food and shelter amid mounting evidence that early hardship leaves children poorer, sicker and less educated as adults.
But with little public notice and accelerating speed, America’s children have become much less poor.
A comprehensive new analysis shows that child poverty has fallen 59 percent since 1993, with need receding on nearly every front. Child poverty has fallen in every state, and it has fallen by about the same degree among children who are white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, living with one parent or two, and in native or immigrant households. Deep poverty, a form of especially severe deprivation, has fallen nearly as much.
In 1993, nearly 28 percent of children were poor, meaning their households lacked the income the government deemed necessary to meet basic needs. By 2019, before temporary pandemic aid drove it even lower, child poverty had fallen to about 11 percent.
Still, the sharp retreat of child poverty represents major progress and has drawn surprisingly little notice, even among policy experts.
It has coincided with profound changes to the safety net, which at once became more stringent and more generous. Starting in the 1990s, tough welfare laws shrank cash aid to parents without jobs. But other subsidies grew, especially for working families, and total federal spending on low-income children roughly doubled.
To examine the drop in child poverty, The New York Times collaborated with Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group with an expertise in statistical analysis. The joint project relied on the data the Census Bureau uses to calculate poverty rates but examined it over more years and in greater demographic detail.
The analysis found that multiple forces reduced child poverty, including lower unemployment, increased labor force participation among single mothers and the growth of state-level minimum wages. But a dominant factor was the expansion of government aid.
In 1993, safety net programs cut child poverty by 9 percent from what it would have been absent the aid. By 2019, those programs had cut child poverty by 44 percent, and the number of children they removed from poverty more than tripled to 6.5 million.
“This is an astounding decline in child poverty,” said Dana Thomson, a co-author of the Child Trends study. “Its magnitude is unequaled in the history of poverty measurement, and the single largest explanation is the growth of the safety net.”
Renee Ryberg, another co-author, said the poverty reduction offered millions of children greater prospects of success. “A childhood free of poverty predicts better adult outcomes in just about every area you can imagine, including education, earnings and health,” she said.
The analysis excluded 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, because pandemic aid made it unrepresentative. Including it makes the decline since 1993 even greater, at 69 percent.
The plunge in child poverty is the opposite of what most liberal experts predicted a quarter-century ago when President Bill Clinton signed a law from a Republican Congress to “end welfare as we know it.”
Conservatives say the landmark law pushed more parents to work and call it the main reason child poverty declined. Progressives say many working families would still be poor without the expanded safety net, which grew in part to compensate for stagnant wages amid decades of rising inequality.
A patchwork of programs shaped by a century of political conflict and compromise, the safety net bears the imprint of both parties and commands the satisfaction of neither. Most Republicans want less spending, more local control and more rules requiring beneficiaries to work. Most Democrats want higher benefits for more people, as seen in their unsuccessful push this year to permanently turn the child tax credit, a workers’ subsidy, into a broader income guarantee.
Critics of all sorts, including those getting aid, complain of red tape.
Yet whatever its flaws, the safety net depicted in the Child Trends data lifts a record share of children from poverty. “The federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won,” President Ronald Reagan said a generation ago. With child poverty at a record low, that narrative of defeat appears obsolete.
“This decline in child poverty is very significant. I cannot say it enough,” said Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, a poverty expert at Brandeis University who reviewed the data. “If we still had the rates as we had in the 1990s, there would be 12 million more children in poverty.”
To see how the safety net protects children, consider the experience of Stacy Tallman, a mother of three in Marlinton, W.Va., who was working as a waitress last year when her teenage son, Jakob, suffered serious injuries in a car accident. Both Ms. Tallman and her partner, who has a maintenance job, missed work to care for him, and their income fell by about a quarter to $36,000.
After payroll taxes and other expenses the government takes into account when measuring poverty, their income was just below the poverty line. But the safety net delivered more than $16,000, not counting pandemic assistance. That included $8,000 in refundable tax credits and $6,500 from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.