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Americans make more than 20% of the world’s income, despite accounting for less than 5% of the world’s population. Yet, poverty — not having enough money to meet basic needs — remains a chronic issue in the United States.

Poverty also impacts millions of children in America. The national child poverty rate was 16.9% in 2021, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). In contrast, the national poverty rate that year was 12.8%.

Where are child poverty rates highest and lowest?

Child poverty rates are highest in the South, according to 2021 data from the Census Bureau’s ACS. Three-quarters of Southern states — specifically, 12 out of 16 states — and Washington, DC, had child poverty rates of at least 18%. Meanwhile, the Midwest and Northeast each had just one state (Ohio and New York, respectively) with child poverty rates of at least 18%, and the West had two (Nevada and New Mexico).

Of all states, Mississippi has the highest child poverty rate at 27.7%, followed by Louisiana at 26.9%. Washington, DC, and New Mexico are tied for the third-highest child poverty rate at 23.9%.

On the other hand, Utah has the lowest child poverty rate out of any other state at 8.1%. It’s followed by New Hampshire (9.2%), Vermont (10.4%), North Dakota (10.5%), and Minnesota (10.8%).

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According to recent figures, the national child poverty rate declined from 21.2% in 2012–2016 to 17.0% in 2017–2021. However, the child poverty rate was still 4.4 percentage points higher than the national poverty rate of 12.6% during the same period.

In contrast, the poverty rate of people ages 65 and older between 2017–2021 was three percentage points lower than the national rate.

Only 117 (3.7%) US counties had child poverty rates of 40% or more. The majority of these, 81.2%, were in the South.

What counts as poverty?

The federal government typically uses an official poverty measure to define poverty status. The measure sets income thresholds based on family size and composition. If a family’s annual income before taxes is at or below the threshold, then that family and everyone in it is classified as in poverty.

But the official poverty measure has some limitations. For example:

  • It does not count children under 15 who are not related to the head of household by birth, marriage, or adoption, such as foster children.
  • People who live in group housing — such as prisons, nursing homes, college dorms, or military barracks — are also excluded because much of this population is unable to earn income, and these residents are typically given housing, food, and other services that people in poverty usually pay for.
  • Additionally, the measure does not vary based on geographic location, which can lead to undercounting in regions where the cost of living is higher.

What is the Supplemental Poverty Measure?

To address these limitations, the federal government also uses a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). Unlike the official poverty measure, the SPM counts both cash and noncash benefits — including federal food programs, housing subsidies, and tax credits — and subtracts necessary expenses like taxes, healthcare costs, and childcare.

You can learn more about how the federal government defines poverty here.

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American Community Survey (ACS), 2021