Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Just 16 percent of children who grow up in poverty manage to become economically successful adults. How do they do it?

More than 1 in 10 American children spend more than half their childhood in poverty—that’s a whopping nine million kids. Most of these children, the majority of whom are African American, are trapped in a cycle of deprivation: As young adults, they’re unlikely to be in school or working, and their children will likely follow a similar path. But a small percentage manage to escape their circumstances and become economically successful.

Researchers with the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty—an initiative supported by the Urban Institute—set out to determine what factors help make it possible for this group to succeed. Their report, published yesterday, is based on data from the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has tracked 18,000 individuals and their descendants since 1968, looking at such areas as employment, income, health, marriage, and child development.

Caroline Ratcliffe and her co-author Emma Cancian Kalish found that 16 percent of “persistently poor children” (those living more than half of their lives from birth to 17 years in poverty) become successful young adults, meaning that between the ages of 25 and 30 they are consistently working or in school, and are not poor.

Some of what differentiated these children from less-successful counterparts had to do with behavior—they were less likely to have had a teen birth and more likely to have attained higher levels of education. But much of what determined their outcome was beyond their control. For one, they spent fewer years living below the poverty line and were less likely to have been poor very early in life (before age 2). They also had a parent or head of household who worked at least part-time.

This more successful group was also much less likely to have lived with a parent or head of household with a mental or physical disability, especially during adolescence. (Only 8 percent of the most successful persistently poor children lived in such a family between the ages of 12 and 17, while 40 percent of the least successful children did.)

Neighborhoods and schools, particularly their degree of segregation, had a significant effect on the children’s success. The most accomplished group grew up in less segregated cities, with less segregated neighborhoods and schools.

While it’s good news that some children born into poverty are able to transcend the steep obstacles in their path, they are among a small minority—and they come from at least somewhat better circumstances. “Eighty-four percent of persistently poor children aren’t succeeding. That’s a big number,” says Ratcliffe. “While there are costs to these children and families, there are also costs to society—namely tens of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and expenses related to poor health and crime.”

It’s long been known that the first two years of life strongly affect children’s chances for later success. (Early poverty, for instance, is linked to “toxic” stress that harms brain development.) So Ratcliffe and Kalish recommend that hospitals connect parents in poverty with programs and services before a child is born, such as cash and food assistance and public health insurance. Follow-up home-visiting and parenting programs can also give children born into poverty a boost.  

The authors advise connecting these parents with subsidized employment, such as through programs financed via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Fund, as well as education and training programs. However, they note this is only half the need: High-quality, affordable child care must accompany such resources, or work and school suffer. For children with a disabled parent or guardian, Ratcliffe and Kalish call for connecting those eligible with the Supplemental Security Income Program, which provides cash to the disabled to meet basic needs.

Finally, while the authors recommend strategies such as housing vouchers that allow families to move out of segregated low-income neighborhoods to higher-income areas, they also call for improving the schools, security, and economic opportunities of disadvantaged neighborhoods. “We take a both/and approach to improving life chances through place,” says Nisha Patel, the executive director for the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty.

Such interventions could give the 84 percent of persistently poor children who aren’t succeeding a better chance of economic advancement. “There shouldn’t be millions of children whose probability of success is lowered simply by virtue of being born into certain circumstances,” Ratcliffe says.

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