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Parents, education, and the relentlessness of low incomes

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Many aspects of the economic picture have improved since the height of the recession in late 2008. Yet the number of children living in families categorized as poor or near-poor remains stubbornly high, recently released figures from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University show.

Analyzing data from the US Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, the latest available, researchers found 44 percent of kids in the US live in low-income families, with half of these families categorized as poor. These figures are up 13 percent and 23 percent, respectively, from pre-recession rates in 2007. Low-income families of four with two children are defined as having an annual income below $47,248; poor families (also of four with two children) are defined as having an income below $23,624.


While more parents have gradually returned to full-time work, more are likely working in lower-wage jobs, helping to explain the high numbers, says Yang Jiang, senior research associate at the NCCP. The data shows that half of low-income children live with at least one parent who is employed full-time year-round, a slight increase from previous years.

A separate report prepared for last year’s US Conference of Mayors showed that since 2008, the fastest growth in jobs has been in the low-paying accommodation and food sector, which had average annual wages of just under $21,000 last year.

Parents’ education levels are strongly linked with kids’ likelihood of living in low-income homes. An overwhelming majority — 86 percent — of kids with parents who didn’t finish high school are classified as low-income. Yet the same is true of nearly one-third of kids with at least one parent who has some college education. The strains of working, attending classes, and arranging child care might limit the amount of college some parents complete, Jiang says.


“Without adequate support, trying to get training can end up draining a family’s resources,” she says.

The data found persistent disparities by race and ethnicity. Nearly two-thirds of black, Hispanic, and American Indian children are categorized as low-income, while just under one-third of white and Asian children are. Percentages also varied substantially by region. While 48 percent of children in the South live in low-income families, 37 percent of kids in the Northeast do. (In Massachusetts, the figure is 30 percent.)

The NCCP and other advocates recommend a two-generation approach to reducing poverty that combines education and training for parents with high-quality care and education for kids. Many states have strong policies in one of these areas, but not the other, Jiang says.

“Policymakers have to think of children and parents together, because children do better when their parents do better,” she says.

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.