Using data to improve the lives of children and their families

MassBudget logoEach year the U.S. Census Bureau releases data on the state of poverty in the United States. We know that children living in poverty face increased risk of poor health and development. Understanding the landscape of poverty is important for designing policies and programs that reduce its effects.

On the one hand, the recent U.S. Census data give us reason to congratulate ourselves—particularly in Massachusetts, where I live and work as the Kids Count Project Director for the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

Thanks to our nation-leading health care reform initiative driven by a broad coalition of community activists, health care providers, policy-makers, and forward-thinking business leaders, Massachusetts continues to lead the way in making sure that almost every single child has access to health insurance.

The Census data also show us that other states—particularly those that have chosen to take advantage of federal funding available thanks to Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act—have seen dramatic increases in health insurance coverage across the board. Massachusetts had a head start, but fortunately other states are catching up.

Wagman blog - Insurance coverage

On the other hand, the U.S. Census data give us reason for pause. We are half a decade out of the recession, yet the benefits of our country’s great economic prosperity are not finding their way to many of our youngest residents.

Child poverty rates are stubbornly high across the country

Comparing 2010 and 2014, only five states[1] have been able to make a statistically significant dent in child poverty rates. Eight states[2] have actually seen child poverty rise since the beginning of the current recovery.

In Massachusetts, child poverty experienced its first statistically significant single-year drop since the recovery, from 16 percent of children in 2013 to just under 15 percent in 2014. This is certainly good news, because it means that approximately 15,000 fewer children are poor. But poverty still hits more than one out of seven children in our state. Close to 203,000 children under the age of 18 are in families with incomes under the federal poverty threshold. Don’t forget that this is a very low standard to which to hold ourselves: the poverty threshold is just over $24,000 a year for a family of four with two children.

Wagman blog - Child poverty rates

Public programs help lift families out of poverty

The Census data on poverty also tell us something else really important about public policy. Using a slightly different measurement (the Supplemental Poverty Measure), we can see that millions of children in the U.S. and tens of thousands in Massachusetts have been lifted above the poverty line by federal and state programs that help families pay for basic necessities. In 2014 nationwide, SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) lifted 4.7 million people out of poverty, while the national Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) together lifted close to 10 million people out of poverty, including more than 5 million children.


Data alone aren’t enough.

There are lots of ways that we can count our kids. In fact, as the KIDS COUNT organization in Massachusetts, we at MassBudget make available lots of numbers and statistics about children through the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

But data aren’t enough. We need to use these data as tools to help us drive policy change. Health insurance coverage statistics will not improve the health of children. Measuring poverty won’t lift kids out of poverty. Data must inform policy choices. With good public policy and proper public investment we can unlock the doors for families across the Commonwealth and our country to resources and opportunity. The recent increase in our state EITC is a good place to start. This increase at the state level paired with making permanent the improvements enacted during the American Recovery Reinvestment Act to EITC and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) at the federal level would continue to support working families.

Making sure that kids count.

When the Census Bureau measures how well we are doing for our children, we can take a look and consider both our successes and our challenges. On the one hand, we see that with concerted public effort and investment, we have made a dramatic difference in health insurance coverage, and we have created programs like SNAP and the EITC that are working to keep many kids out of poverty. On the other hand, we are not yet reaching all our kids. A new look at the data gives us an opportunity to take stock of what we have done—and what we still have left to do—to make sure that every kid counts.

[1] Colorado, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table CP03, Comparative Economic Characteristics.

[2] Alaska, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hew Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia. U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table CP03, Comparative Economic Characteristics.


Nancy Wagman is the Kids Count Project Director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, and is also responsible for MassBudget’s Budget Browser and Children’s Budget.