Last month, the Pew Research Center pointed out that in 2013, for the first time since the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting this data, the number of black children in poverty overtook the number of white children in poverty. In fact, the number of white children who live under the poverty line has exceeded black children only by a small amount for years. But what the figure now highlights is that while the child poverty rate for whites, Hispanics, and Asians declined between 2011 and 2013, the black child poverty rate remained relatively stable, at over 38 percent.
Chris Wimer and JaeHyun Nam at Columbia University believe that this has mostly to do with the low earnings of poor black families. In order to give us a better idea, they broke down the family earnings of children at the lower end of the income spectrum by different racial groups between 2011 and 2013.
Disturbingly, black families did not do well. At the 10th percentile, black families consistently had zero earnings from 2011 to 2013. In contrast, white, Asian, and Hispanic families experienced a net increase in earnings (though a minimal one for Hispanics).
At the 25th percentile, black families’ earnings increased over the three years, but they were still consistently half the level of the next highest group, Hispanics, and less than a quarter of whites and Asians. In 2013, the 25th percentile of family earnings of black children was $9,000—not enough, if you were not including social programs, to keep even a single person above the poverty line, much less a household with children.
When looking at median earnings, black families started to close the gap, but they still lagged behind. In 2013, the median earnings of black families was $28,000, meaning that half of all black children lived in families that earned an income less than that. In contrast, the median earnings of white families was $74,800.
Basically, black families in the bottom half of the income distribution consistently did the worst of all racial groups, with greater disparities the farther down the distribution you went. Despite the post-recession recovery, black children at the 10th percentile saw no increase in household earnings.
There are a number of possible factors contributing to these low earnings, the most obvious being higher black unemployment and underemployment rates. According to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, nearly half of black children had parents who lacked secure employment in 2013, compared to 24 percent of white and 23 percent of Asian children (although all of these proportions remained relatively stable from 2011 to 2013). The black unemployment rate has also been consistently double that of whites since the Census Bureau began collecting this data in 1954.
Even African-Americans who are working suffer from a wage gap, with black men and black women earning around 71 and 64 cents, respectively, for every dollar white men earned in 2013. Occupational segregation, racial bias in hiring, and high conviction and incarceration rates are likely contributors to these problems. Black families also suffer from a slew of additional structural barriers, such as being more likely to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty and to attend poor quality schools.
None of this means that black children have to be relegated to a life of poverty. There is a simple policy that most of our peer countries in Europe, along with Japan, Canada, and Australia have adopted in order to aid parents with the expensive burden of childrearing—providing them a cash allowance per child in their household, on a weekly or monthly basis. The benefit, often termed a child allowance or child benefit, has proven to drastically cut child poverty rates in other countries and would serve as a buffer for American families who have little to no earned income.
This is important as currently, our main child poverty-cutting benefits are the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which do not apply to parents who are not earning any income. Additionally, parents who make less than $3,000 are ineligible for the CTC and for those who do make more than that, the credit is only partially and regressively refundable, meaning that the less money parents make, the less they get back. All this results in the most impoverished children, many of them minorities, missing out on this essential benefit. A cash allowance would help to fill in these gaps.
It is time for our policymakers to start addressing our egregious and disparate child poverty rates. With Senator Bernie Sanders building a platform that espouses social welfare policies, he seems the most likely candidate to bring a cash allowance to the national debate. For our country’s youngest and most impoverished citizens, that could be revolutionary.