What a New Study Gets Wrong About Child Poverty and the Social Safety Net

The New York Times this week reported on a new child poverty study with two big findings. First, child poverty has fallen by 59 percent between 1993 and 2019. Second, the most important reason for the decline was the expanding social safety net. The first finding is true but not exactly breaking news. The second finding is simply false—and bolsters a counterproductive progressive framing around anti-poverty policy.

The new report was written by a seven-person team at Child Trends that used data largely assembled by Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. The researchers found that child poverty fell from 28 percent in 1993 to 11 percent in 2019. This is a huge accomplishment but a trend that has been observed for a decade now. 

My American Enterprise Institute colleague, Richard Burkhauser, and other researchers published a paper in 2019 reporting that overall poverty fell dramatically over 60 years. Three years earlier, I wrote a report that found child poverty fell from 18 percent to 8 percent between 1993 and 2014. And in a 2014 report, the Congressional Research Service found that poverty among single mothers dropped from 38 percent in 1993 to 24 percent in 2013. Another colleague, Bruce Meyer, wrote a paper with James Sullivan in 2012 that found poverty among single-parent families fell from 27 percent in 1993 to 9 percent in 2010. 

This significant accomplishment challenged conservative and liberal assumptions alike. The U.S. had not “lost” the war on poverty after all, and perhaps the safety net had done some good. But it also threw into doubt the notion that the welfare reforms of the 1990s had failed abjectly. In recent years, conservative scholars have seemed more comfortable accepting the reality of a decline in child poverty, coming as it did after welfare reform. 

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