Indicators Related to Children in Working Poor Families
The proportion of poor children who had a family member with work experience during the past year declined for the second straight year in 2009, to 54 percent. This rate reached a recent high in 2000 on the heels of welfare reform, but since has fallen by nearly a third. (Figure 1)
One of the major goals of the 1996 welfare reform law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), was to move more poor families with children into the labor force.1 Work can be an important step out of poverty, another important goal of welfare reform. Many low-income working parents and their children, however, remain poor even after meeting the work thresholds used in PRWORA (at least 20 hours per week for a single-parent family, and at least 35 hours per week for a two-parent family).2
There is no generally accepted definition of “working poor,” even though the term is widely used in discussions of policy.ii For purposes of this indicator, working poor families are defined as families whose income is below the federal poverty level ($21,200 for a family of four in 2008), and living in households where there was at least one full- or part-time worker.
Children in working poor families are substantially less likely to receive TANF or Supplemental Nutrition Assistanceiii than poor children whose parents do not meet this work threshold. They are about equally likely to be covered by health insurance, a positive change from the mid-1990s when they were less likely to be covered. Working poor families with children are also somewhat more likely to own their homes than are other poor families with children, though they lag far behind their non-poor counterparts on this measure.3
A study using a somewhat different definition of “working poor” found that increased work effort was associated with better child outcomes. Between 1997 and 2004, the well-being of children in working poor families improved on 10 of 15 measures, whereas the well-being of children in non-working poor families improved on just five measures. In 2004, children in working poor families were faring better than children in non-working poor families across 12 of 17 well-being measures, even after accounting for other factors that may have distinguished these two groups.4
i Data are reported by the householder. A person with work experience is one who, during the preceding calendar year, did any work for pay or profit or worked without pay on a family-operated farm or business at any time during the year, on a part-time or full-time basis.
ii The Census Bureau does not use the term "working poor." For more information, see: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/definitions.html
iii The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
Between 1995 and 2008, the percentage of poor children living in households with at least one worker fhas fluctuated from 67 percent in 1995, to 77 percent in 2000, to 56 percent in 2005 and 2007, and then declining in 2008 and 2009. (Figure 1) Similar trends were evident for the subgroup of children living in single-mother families. (Table 1) In contrast, child poverty during this period fell from 20 to 16 percent between 1995 and 2000, rose to 17 percent in 2005, and has been increasing steadily, to 20 percent in 2009.5
Among all children, the percent living in working poor families decreased between 1995 and 2005, from 14 to 10 percent. This trend has seen a small (a little more than one percent) but statistically significant increase between 2005 and 2009. (Table 2)
Differences by Family Structure
Among poor children, those in married-couple families are more likely to also be in working poor families than are those in single-mother families: 56 versus 53 percent in 2009. (Figure 2)
Among all children, however, those in single-parent families are much more likely to qualify as working poor: 24 percent, compared to six percent among those in married-couple families. (Table 2) This is because single-parent families in general are much more likely than two-parent families to be poor.6
Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin
Among poor children, Hispanic children are more likely to live in working poor families than are white and black children. (Table 1)
Among all children, Hispanic and black children are the most likely to live in working poor families (18 percent each), followed by Asian children at seven percent, and white children at six percent. (Figure 3 and Table 2)
State and Local Estimates
2007 state estimates for children (ages 0-17) living in working poor households whose parents are employed full-time with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level are available through the National Survey for Children’s Health at the Data Resource Center on Child and Adolescent Health. (Select Family Health and Activities, then Children Living in Working Poor Households)
2009 state-level estimates that use a different definition of working poor (less than 200 percent of the poverty line, and at least one parent who worked 50 or more weeks in the previous year) are available from the KIDS COUNT Data Center.
What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator
Hadley, A. M., Mbwana, K., and Hair, E. C. (2010). What works for older youth during the transition to adulthood: Lessons from experimental evaluations of programs and interventions. A Child Trends Fact Sheet. Available here.
Hashim, K. and Moore, K. A. (2007). What works for increasing family income and parental employment: Lessons from experimental evaluations of programs and interventions A Child Trends Fact Sheet. Available here.
Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP)
Self Sufficiency Project (SSP)
Youth Corps (American Conservation and Youth Service Corps)
Children in Poverty
Long Term Poverty
Secure Parental Employment
Long Term Welfare Dependence
Working poor families are defined as families whose income is below the official federal poverty level ($21,200 for a family of four in 2008) and in which there was at least one full- or part-time working householder.
Child Trends analysis of the March Current Population Survey (CPS), 1995-2009.
Raw Data Source
March Current Population Survey (CPS), 1995-2009. For more information on the CPS, see http://www.census.gov/cps/
Recommended citation: Child Trends (2011). Children in Working Poor Families. Retrieved from www.childtrendsdatabank.org/alphalist?q=node/195
Last update: March, 2011
1 U.S. Congress, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Section 411.
2 Parrott, S. and Sherman, A. (2006). TANF AT 10: Program Results are More Mixed than Often Understood. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.cbpp.org/files/8-17-06tanf.pdf.
3 Wertheimer, R., Long, M., and Jager, J. (2002) Children in working poor families: update and extensions. A report to the Foundation for Child Development. Washington, D.C.: Child Trends. http://www.childtrends.org/files/Child_Trends-2002_10_01_FR_WorkingPoor.pdf.
4 Wertheimer, R., Moore, K. A., and Burkhauser, M. (September, 2008). The well-being of children in working poor and other families: 1997 and 2004. Child Trends Research Brief (#2008-33). Retrieved from: www.childtrends.org/Files//Child_Trends-2008_09_29_RB_WorkingPoor.pdf
5 See “Children in poverty,” Child Trends DataBank, http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/221.