The following excerpt is from the report, Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children, published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau. This report is one of several in the new series, “The American People,” which sets the results of Census 2000 in context and collectively provides a portrait of the American people in a new century. Each report is written by an author or team of authors selected for their expertise with the data and their broad understanding of the implications of demographic trends. For information on the series, go to The full report is available through the PRB online store.

(December 2004) Comparing data from the 2000 Census to data from the 1990 Census shows that children have become better off on some key measures of well-being, but worse off on other measures.

The child poverty rate is perhaps the most global and widely used indicator of child well-being, in part because poverty is closely linked to a number of undesirable outcomes in areas such as health, education, emotional welfare, and delinquency.1 Data from the 2000 Census show that children continue to have a higher poverty rate than any other age group, even the elderly (those ages 65 and older). In 2000, the poverty rate for children was 16 percent, compared with 10 percent for the elderly (see figure).

Poverty Among Children and Elderly, 1959–2003

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, March Current Population Surveys, 1959–2003.

The child poverty rate has been higher than the elderly poverty rate for the past three decades; but prior to 1973, the reverse was true. In 1959, the child poverty rate (27 percent) was well below the elderly poverty rate (35 percent). Samuel Preston’s groundbreaking work showed that the improvement in the standard of living for older Americans is closely related to social policies such as Social Security and Medicare. Examining trends in the early 1980s, Preston concluded: “Conditions have deteriorated for children and improved dramatically for the elderly, and demographic change has been intimately involved in these developments.”2 The dramatic increase in Social Security and Medicare over the past 40 years—these two programs consumed about one-third of the federal budget in 2001—is testimony to the enormous political power of the elderly. Child advocates wonder why society doesn’t make similar investments on behalf of children.

Comprehensive analysis of federal spending on children is rare because the federal budget is very complex, but one study found that the per capita expenditure on children in 1997 was $2,290, compared with around $14,000 for the elderly.3 One major expenditure, coming largely from state and local budgets, is public education. The total outlay for preschool through grade 12 in public schools was $435 billion in 2001. However, even when government monies spent on public education are added to that total, public expenditures for the elderly are still greater than those for children.

The child poverty rate for related children (children who are related to the householder) fell from 20 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2000. These figures reflect the official poverty rate, but this measure of poverty has several shortcomings. Despite its shortcomings, however, the poverty measure is useful because it identifies a set of families who have a very high probability of significant economic stress. Most Americans would agree that the prospect of trying to support oneself, a spouse, and two children on an income of less than $18,660 a year would be daunting anywhere in the country.

The decline of child poverty in the 1990s was also widespread. There was a decrease in child poverty between 1990 and 2000 in 39 states.4 Only five states and the District of Columbia experienced an increase in child poverty rates between 1990 and 2000. It is clear that child poverty rates fell for blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians; however, because the 2000 Census allowed respondents to choose more than one race or ethnicity, we cannot make strict comparisons between the racial groups shown in the 1990 Census and those shown in the 2000 Census.

The decline in child poverty during the 1990s was accompanied by more children living in affluent households. Between 1990 and 2000, the number and share of children living in the most affluent households (yearly incomes greater than $100,000) increased. Census data show that 14 percent of children lived in affluent households in 2000, up from 10 percent in 1990. In terms of child outcomes, however, the movement from middle-income to upper-income households (reflected in the rise of children in affluent households) is not as important as the movement of families from low-income to middle-income status (reflected in the falling child poverty rate) because negative child outcomes are heavily concentrated in the low-income population.

William P. O’Hare is the director of the KIDS COUNT program at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


  1. Susan E. Mayer, What Money Can’t Buy: Family Income and Children’s Life Chances (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997): table 3.1; and Children’s Defense Fund, Wasting America’s Future (Washington, DC: Children’s Defense Fund, 1994).
  2. Samuel H. Preston, “Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America’s Dependents,” Demography 21, no. 4 (1984): 436.
  3. Rebecca L. Clark et al., “Federal Expenditures on Children: 1960-1997, Assessing the New Federalism,” Occasional Paper 45 (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2001).
  4. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2004 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).