That any children in the land of plenty go to bed hungry, lack health care or a roof over their heads is a shameful reality in America. But a new analysis reveals that this problem is far from intractable.

In fact, for more than two decades, U.S. childhood poverty has quietly declined, slashed by almost 60% between 1993 and 2019. If that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, U.S. Census data released last week show an accelerated drop thanks to federal pandemic aid.

This triumph of the social safety net is worthy of praise, but the same research that put the spotlight on that success also points the way to necessary improvements so programs can reach more children — especially in families of color.

Congress can keep the momentum going by restoring the expanded child tax credit.

That expansion, which expired in December and was part of the American Rescue Plan, temporarily guaranteed an income to families with children, increased the benefit and made the credit fully refundable so even very low-income families could claim its full value.

Nationally, the enhanced tax credit is largely responsible for an unprecedented 46% drop in child poverty in a single year — from 9.7% to 5.2% between 2020 and 2021. In Washington, nearly 1.4 million children in nearly 800,000 families received the expanded credit. Its permanent expansion would lift an estimated 67,000 Washington kids out of poverty and reduce the state’s childhood poverty rate by 43%, according to an Urban Institute study.


Data confirm the expanded child tax credit worked, said U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, who was instrumental in making the credit part of pandemic relief. The Washington Democrat is spearheading efforts to make the benefit permanent.

“Congress should have never allowed this critical benefit to lapse,” she said. “Kids don’t grow up in a year. Parents should know these investments are there for the long-term.”

The impact of childhood poverty is clear. Growing up poor hurts children’s health, academic achievement, social-emotional functioning, long-term well-being and economic success, according to research group Child Trends, whose new report explored the decades-long decrease in child poverty rates.

The reasons for that wider decline are complex — and include lower unemployment and teen birthrates, more working single mothers and increases in state minimum wages — but the primary driver was the social safety net. Programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program contributed to keeping kids from poverty.

In a troubling caveat, however, researchers found that while the reduction cut across racial lines and immigration status, disparities remained, meaning vulnerable populations were still more likely to bear the brunt of poverty. Easing barriers to access those safety net programs, such as shifting eligibility criteria by centering on children’s needs instead of their parents’ work or immigration status, would help protect more kids.

The expanded child tax credit, which provided parents with predictable monthly payments and that had eligibility requirements that relied on the child’s citizen status and not the parents’, is a good example.

Unfortunately, there already are indications that rising inflation and the end of the expanded child tax credit will likely reverse some of the gains made on poverty reduction, affecting millions of children.

Evidence in hand, Congress must act quickly and make a wise investment in America’s future.