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Child poverty

September 19, 2022

There has been quite a bit of media attention on the fortunate decline in childhood poverty. Renee Ryberg explains why that is important:

A childhood free of poverty predicts better adult outcomes in just about every area you can imagine, including education, earnings and health.

USChildPovertyFrom1980That said, I am underwhelmed by how most of the popular press reports on this. In trying to explain it, they focus entirely on government policy. The New York Times article from which the quote is taken at least looks at policy changes over the decades. Importantly, it provides a time series graph, covering a reasonable number of years, which is something everyone thinking quantitatively wants to see. (The articles that give one conveniently chosen starting point should be dismissed outright.)

USFertilityRateFrom1980The problem with gravitating to policy analysis is that something like childhood poverty has broad causes. Our society has seen many other kinds of relevant changes over those years. Let’s consider one example. The first graph above is from ChildTrends, showing US childhood poverty. I purposely clipped it to start in the year 1980, to align by year with the second graph. Which shows the US fertility rate over the same years, from this article. (Click either graph to enlarge.) While they do not align perfectly, they both show long term decline, both have a peak in the early 1990s, and both have that precipitous decline in the last decade. It is easy to understand how women limiting the number of children they bear thereby gain some family financial leeway.

Even so, establishing their causal relationship would require digging more closely into those statistics for different groups. Note it might play more role in some decades than in others. No doubt, more for some groups than others. (And similarly for any particular policy change.) The ChildTrends analysis claims the decline in fertility benefits the poorest:

While the dramatic decline in teen birth rates from 1993 to 2019 was not associated with decreases in child poverty rates, it was associated with a decline in rates of deep poverty among children. The decline in teen births was associated with 52 percent of the total decline in child deep poverty across this time.

If so, it seems odd it helps so much with the segment that suffers most, and not at all with the next. That answer strikes me as one that likely depends on the analytic lens brought to bear.

To be clear, I am not dismissing the importance of government programs. I support most aimed at childhood poverty. And would do so, even if they merely reduced the pain, while incidence increased from other causes.
But I also am leery of analysis that looks at just one kind of cause for long-term social trends. Society is a complex beast.

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