Minnesota sees historic drop in child poverty

Child poverty has fallen to historic proportions in Minnesota and across the country over the past 30 years, according to recently released U.S. Census figures.

It’s a trend that some state social service officials attribute to the demands of social work and a strong social safety net of programs that they warn should be saved for the future.

In Minnesota, 4.6% of children lived in poverty in 2020, down from 20.9% in 1990. That’s down 78% over the past three decades, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. That’s a better performance than the nation as a whole, which saw a historic 61% decline. With an estimated 1.32 million Minnesota children under the age of 18, approximately 61,000 live in poverty.

The result of the long downward trend in poverty is that countless thousands of Minnesota children in recent decades have grown up in better conditions than previous generations. While the decline in poverty rates was similar across all racial groups, racial disparities were not eliminated, statistics show. Black, Hispanic and Indigenous children are even more likely to live in poverty than white children.

Yet such massive gains in the fight against poverty will yield benefits for years to come, say those who study the matter.

“You can look decades into a childhood where someone experienced poverty, and you can see and measure the impact,” said Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower. “Whether it’s income, career trajectory, health, disability, all kinds of outcomes are tied to it.”

Reducing poverty, she said, involves “not just impacting the individual, but multiplying it by hundreds of thousands. We have become a healthier, more productive and happier population than we would have otherwise.”

The decrease in child poverty is “fantastic news,” said Nikki Farago, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services. “Fewer children in poverty is incredible, and it will have an incredible long-term impact for Minnesota.”

But Farago warned that the state has a lot of work to do to eliminate disparities born of historical and well-documented discrimination.

“We know communities of color start in a different place,” she said. “They start behind everyone else. It’s critical that as a state and a state agency, we make sure that we target programs to address these disparities and eliminate these disparities, so that all children in Minnesota can blossom. “

Labor, tax policy are the keys

Some social service officials trace the improvements to social policy changes decades ago.

Bill Clinton, elected president in 1992, campaigned to “end welfare as we know it”. He signed a welfare reform bill in 1996 that drew criticism from many of his fellow Democrats who thought his increased work demands were punitive.

But many who study family and child welfare now say that demanding work in exchange for public benefits has proven to be a good idea, noting that the increase in the number of parents on the labor market is part of the reason child poverty has dropped so dramatically. And that makes access to child care even more critical for low-income families, many noted.

Another Clinton-era reform that was perhaps even more significant is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), enacted in 1993. It reduced taxes and increased tax refunds for parents. low-income – as long as they work.

“It was controversial at the time,” said Maureen Warren, senior vice president of services for Minnesota Lutheran Social Service. “A lot of his own supporters were disappointed with him. But some of the research credits that now, in retrospect.”

Like others in the world of social services, Warren warned that falling child poverty should not signal the end of help for struggling families.

“Now is not the time to declare victory,” she said. “Social investment is needed to ensure children can thrive – connecting them to healthy habits, education, a safe environment, social connections.

“While the income may have increased, that doesn’t mean the child’s health has improved,” she said, noting that safe and affordable housing remains a big issue in Minnesota.

And income alone doesn’t paint the full picture of poverty and economic equality, said Yasmin Grewal-Kök, who leads a team of policy analysts studying child welfare at Chapin Hall, a research arm from the University of Chicago.

“America has not solved poverty,” she said. “There are over 20 million Americans in poverty.”

In terms of net worth, she said, families of color are still far behind white families. And there are many struggling families just above the poverty line — defined in 2022 as a cash income of around $28,000 for a family of four.

Grewal-Kök said the many grants deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic have proven effective in keeping families out of poverty. She suggested they are worth keeping an eye on constantly.

“It had an incredible impact on poverty, food insecurity and other areas,” she said. “It kind of shows us what’s possible.”

COVID programs have helped

The end of COVID-related stimulus is of concern to Debra Fitzpatrick, director of policy and research at the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

“We know families with children are struggling, and part of that is likely due to the reduction in these really important supports during the pandemic, combined with inflation and other issues,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick pointed to a recent Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, which tracks the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. It showed that 45% of Minnesota respondents with children in their household struggle to pay for usual household expenses.

Wages are rising but not as fast as inflation. Minnesota families are struggling to keep up with high gas prices due to inflation, she said.

The drop in child poverty was great to see, but it’s hard to attribute it to one policy alone, said Kalen Flynn, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She said there was a danger that the numbers would go back up once the COVID-era program structure wears off.

Many families were already struggling to afford housing, school meals and child care before the pandemic, said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota. Hunger Solutions has seen more support for families during the pandemic, she said, and the report confirmed it.

“I know these services, if they haven’t already blinked, they’re about to,” Moriarty said.

School lunch was free for all families during the pandemic, for example, and the child tax credit and other pandemic-era benefits were increased. Now families may be left without the programs that kept them afloat. Moriarty said she fears the census report will be seen as another reason to return to “normal” or that child poverty has been resolved.

“If we just let people fall back into extreme poverty, that doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t empower people to help themselves,” she said.

“I think that’s the good side of what can happen when we all work with the government to provide support to families. The dark side is what people will go back to, unfortunately, if we don’t maintain that support. “

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