The Effects of the Recession on Child Poverty

Julia B. Isaacs
Julia B. Isaacs Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Urban Institute

January 4, 2010

Nearly one in five children under age 18 lived in poor families in 2008, according to poverty statistics released by the Census Bureau in September 2009. Though high, this statistic does not capture the full impact of the economic downturn, which is expected to drive poverty even higher in 2009. However, updated poverty statistics will not be released by the Census Bureau until next August or September. To better understand the effects of the recession on children and families, this brief examines child poverty rates in 2008 in conjunction with increases in families’ use of nutrition assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

Between August 2008 and August 2009, the number of people receiving food stamps, or what are now called SNAP benefits, increased by 7.0 million, or 24 percent, as monthly caseloads skyrocketed from 29.5 to 36.5 million participants. This extraordinary increase means that roughly 3.4 million more children were receiving SNAP benefits in August 2009 than a year earlier, based on data showing that almost half (49 percent) of SNAP participants are children. Tracking SNAP recipient data by state provides an initial sense of which parts of the country are experiencing the most dramatic growth in economic need among families with children and where we can expect to see the largest increases in child poverty during 2009.


Children in nine states or jurisdictions are at particularly high risk of poverty in 2009, reflecting a combination of high child poverty in 2008 and very high increases in use of nutrition assistance between 2008 and 2009, according to the state-level data analysis summarized in table 1 and explained further in the body of the brief. All nine lie in the south or southwestern regions of the United States: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and the District of Columbia (which is hereafter referred to as a state). Public agencies and private charities in these nine states are likely to face significant strain in meeting the economic needs of children and families during the current year and immediate future.

Seven states combine very high growth in SNAP caseloads over the past year with average levels of child poverty in 2008 (between 15 and 20 percent, or relatively close to the national average). These states, located throughout the country, include Florida, Idaho, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, Nevada, and Oregon. In addition, three states with very high growth in assistance had relatively low child poverty rates (less than 15 percent) last year. The social service systems in these three states – Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont – may not be prepared to serve an influx of newly poor children.

With families’ incomes falling during the current economic recession, a total of 25 states may face high child poverty rates in 2009, based on high poverty in 2008 and/or large growth in assistance caseloads during the past year. At the other end of the spectrum, there are five states – Connecticut, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey and Wyoming – where child poverty was below 15 percent in 2008, and there was only moderate growth in recipients of SNAP benefits through June 2009. The children in these five states are at less risk of poverty in 2009 than children in the rest of the country. Finally, child poverty is likely to increase in the remaining 21 states, but generally not as high as in to the high levels threatening the states in the pink shaded areas of table 1.

The remainder of this brief provides a review of child poverty rates in 2008, by state, followed by a discussion of how more contemporaneous measures of economic need, specifically SNAP caseloads and unemployment rates, can shed light on expected poverty rates in 2009. I then rank states as having very high, high, or moderately high growth in SNAP recipients and conclude with the combined analysis summarized in table 1.