Last year, America placed next to last in a ranking of child well-being in 35 developed countries, barely beating out Romania. A recent report by the Children's Defense Fund helps explain how the US earned that distinction. According to the report, 1-in-5 American children live in relative poverty. Close to half of poverty-stricken kids live in extreme poverty, which means their families earn less than half the poverty level of $11, 746 per year for a family of four.
Since the Great Recession began in 2009, there's been a 73 percent jump in student homelessness and a 23 percent increase in child hunger. The so-called "jobless recovery" has not helped.
"Our key finding is that four years after the end of the recession, children have not seen any relief," says Caroline Fichtenberg, Director of Research at the Fund. "The recession has not ended for them."
It's even worse in Southern states, where 1-in-4 kids is poor. "We call it the geographic lottery," Fichtenberg says. "Depending on where the child is born, there's a much higher or lower chance they'll be poor."
Their findings square with recent research that shows your chances of doing better than your parents depend on where you grow up. When it comes to social mobility, "Geography is destiny," AlterNet's Lynn Parramore reported, showing that kids born in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and the West Coast have a better chance of getting ahead than kids born in other parts of the country.
Fichtenberg points out that poor kids seem to benefit from safety-net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The report found that SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit for families and Child Tax Credit helped pull 9 million kids out of poverty in 2012.
But states with some of the highest rates of child poverty have historically pursued policies that make life harder for poor families. Here are the 5 states with the worst rates of child poverty and some of the unhelpful policy decisions lawmakers made there.
Mississippi lives at the bottom of most economic rankings and child poverty is no different: 34.7 percent of Mississippi's kids live in poverty while 19 percent face extreme poverty. Mississippi does excel at funelling kids into the criminal justice system; in 2012 the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Meridian county in Mississippi for jailing public school children for infractions as slight as being tardy or going to the bathroom without permission.
The state's safety net programs provide some of the paltriest benefits in the country. On average, poor families in the state that qualify for Transitional Assistance for Needy Families benefits get $140 a month, far lower than the national average. Meanwhile, more and more Mississippians might need to make use of poverty programs: a recent report alarmingly found that 61.9 percent of Mississippi residents are financially insecure, with little or no savings, a 4 percent jump from last year.
2. New Mexico
New Mexico, which has a 29 percent child poverty rate, actually did worse than Mississippi in a measure of overall child well-being, based on indicators like education, health and family income. And the state's elected officials do not seem overeager to address the problem, advocates say. "When business rankings come out and New Mexico is low...the legislature seems to take that very seriously. But when it comes to child well-being, there doesn't seem to be the same sense of urgency," the communications director for New Mexico Voices for Children told the New Mexican.
In 2013 the state legislature passed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $8.50, but it was vetoed by the Governor. Legislators are currently pushing a constitutional amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $8.30 and adjust it to inflation, which still falls short of a living wage for a family in New Mexico. On Wednesday, two Democratic lawmakers said the measure would fail because Democrats didn't have the votes to get it through the House, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Arkansas' high rate of child poverty -- 28.5 percent -- is not surprising given the state's minimum wage of $6.25 (a full dollar less than the Federal minimum wage). According to the Economic Policy Institute, one fifth of the kids in the state have a parent who'd start making more money if the minimum wage were raised to $10.10, as proposed by the President. But even some Democrats in Arkansas are opposed. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), who is up for re-election, recently had this to say:
“I know $10.10 still isn’t a whole lot of money, but I think it’s too much, too fast,” Pryor said in an interview at the Capitol. “I’m not supportive of that.”
Bloomberg News points out that Pryor's lack of enthusiasm for a living wage may be related to having Walmart's headquarters in his state, as well as the generosity of the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association to his campaign. Both organizations are fighting the minimum-wage hike.
In 2012, 310,053 Louisiana children lived in poverty; the state has the 3rd highest level of poverty in the country.
Governor Bobby Jindal has worked tirelessly to cut taxes for the rich while gutting the state's safety net provisions. Jindal's refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act will leave 456,000 low-income people without insurance, according to the Atlantic.
In his State of the Union address, Governor Robert Bentley addressed Alabama's alarming poverty rates: "Everyone in this room knows Alabama is one of the poorest states in America, where 1-in-4 children live in poverty. Nearly one million of our fellow Alabamians are dependent on food stamps."
Alabama is the 6th poorest state and has a 27.5% rate of child poverty. Where did the Governor lay the blame for this state of affairs? On programs that have been proven to help the poor, calling them a “spider’s web of dependency.”
As Kimble Forrister of Alabama Arise points out, many Alabamians mired in poverty actually have jobs, those jobs just don't pay enough.
Poverty in Alabama, for most families, is a story of people who already have jobs. It's a story of many small businesses and even some giant corporations that limit workers to 29 hours a week to avoid paying benefits. It's a story of young workers with low starting salaries, or unskilled workers who don't make enough to pay their bills.
Though most of Alabama's state "poverty dollars" go to children or senior citizens who can't work, the next largest amount goes to workers who cannot survive on their paychecks alone. They are able to participate in the economy because their wages are supplemented by food assistance, child care and health coverage for their children.
Like some of his gubernatorial counterparts, Bentley also decided not to extend Medicaid benefits under the ACA for Alabama residents. Kentucky is the only Southern state to expand Medicaid.