Poverty & Young Children: A Look at the State of America’s Babies

The United States is home to 12 million infants and toddlers.
1 in 4 of these babies lives in poverty.

By Myra Jones-Taylor, Chief Policy Officer, ZERO TO THREE

As we celebrate Children’s Week, we must keep in mind that far too many young children, particularly infants and toddlers, are poor in America. Our nation’s babies are disproportionately represented in low-income and poor families, with as many as 23 percent living in poverty. Research shows that poverty at an early age can be especially harmful, affecting later achievement and employment. The recently released National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) study report, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, goes beyond more cautious correlations of poverty with detrimental outcomes to state outright that  there is a direct causal link between poverty and negative outcomes for children’s healthy development.  

Our earliest years are the most important for brain development. Children age 3 and younger make an incredible one million neural connections every second, setting the foundation for all future learning. Poverty gets under the skin. Children who start out in poverty are more likely to fall behind in their language development and experience learning disabilities or developmental delays, with gaps in development appearing before a child’s second birthday. Research showing the correlation of early poverty with diminished growth in certain areas of the brain also shows that strong, nurturing relationships with caring adults can shield babies and toddlers from the negative impacts and support their healthy brain development.

ZERO TO THREE’s State of Babies Yearbook: 2019, a first-of-its-kind resource tells the story of the nation’s babies and finds early warning signs—including the high rate of poverty—that too many babies and toddlers face significant challenges. Designed to bridge the gap between science and policy, the Yearbook provides national and state-by-state snapshots of how babies and their families are faring. Most importantly, it is intended to be a resource that child advocates, policymakers, and other stakeholders can use to inform and promote policies that ensure all babies have the opportunity for a strong start in life.

The United States ranks 31st for relative child poverty among economically advanced countries.

Many of the findings presented in the State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 reflect the significant challenges families with limited resources – particularly those with young children -- face as they work to ensure their children’s current and future well-being. The findings also show that the state where a baby is born can make a difference in their chances for a strong start. Here are highlights of what the Yearbook reveals about poverty and the state of America’s babies in each of the three ZERO TO THREE policy framework areas: 

Good Health

  • Nearly 1 in 5 (17%) infants and toddlers do not have access to enough healthy, affordable food due to lack of resources. In 17 states, this number is more than 20%, and is as high as 36.8% in 1 state (New Mexico).

  • Despite coverage available through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, 5.8% of low-income infants and toddlers lack health insurance. This ranges from 0.7% in Vermont to 15.1% in North Dakota.

Strong Families

  • With as many as 45% of infants and toddlers living in households with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level (about $50,000 a year for a family of four in 2017) and 23% living in households below poverty level, too many babies live in families that struggle to meet their basic needs.

  • Only 1 in 5 families with an infant or toddler living in poverty receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. This ranges widely by state, from as few as 2.6% of babies in Wyoming to 69.7% in Maryland.

  • Infants and toddlers are uniquely sensitive to challenges in their environments. As many as 15.6% of babies live in crowded housing, which has been shown to negatively affect development. Across states this ranges from 6.2% in West Virginia to as many as 28.3% of babies in California.

  • And 6.3% of parents with babies are raising their children in unsafe neighborhoods; this ranging from less than 1% of parent report in Georgia to 18.8% in California. 

Positive Early Learning Experiences

  • Infants and toddlers in families with incomes below poverty level are eligible for Early Head Start, which provides comprehensive services that promote positive child development. However, funding levels mean that as few as 7% of eligible infants and toddlers have access to these services. The proportion reached varies widely from 3% in Tennessee to 21% in Vermont.

  • Infant child care costs take more than one third of the paycheck of parents in most states; and more than half in 11 states. Yet few families receive financial assistance with the high cost of care.  Only 4.2% of babies in families with incomes equal to or below 150% of the state median income receive a child care subsidy. 

There is promise, however, in the fact that the impact of the stress caused by poverty on children’s development can be buffered through positive nurturing relationships with family and caregivers.  Programs and services proven to support the healthy development of babies and their families throughout this critical period of tremendous growth also play a critical role.  To support all babies in achieving their full potential we must  1) ensure equitable opportunities for families to  meet their children’s basic needs, through programs such as SNAP, WIC , Medicaid, and CHIP; 2) invest in policies like home visiting, Early Head Start, and maternal and infant mental health, that support parents in nurturing their children; and 3) implement economic policies that lead to the creation of good jobs, education and training, and tax or other income support policies that put more money in the pockets of families; and ensure family-friendly workplace policies such as paid family and medical leave and child care that enable families to form the strong foundation their children need to succeed as our next generation of workers and citizens. As expressed by NASEM and our partners at First Focus, “child poverty is solvable if there is the political will to act and support from a range of sectors, including the public.”

In partnership we can make the potential of all babies – and children – our national priority.

Learn More

To learn more, visit the State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 Website (http://stateofbabies.org), where you can download a full copy of the Yearbook, view and download individual State Profiles, obtain a copy of the companion brief, Promising Approaches at Work in States, and access advocacy guidance in the State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 Toolkit.

ZERO TO THREE is proud to be a voice for our nation’s youngest children as a member of the U.S. Child Poverty Action Group, a partnership of child advocacy organizations dedicated to ending child poverty.


First Focus