Despite U.S. Job Growth, Lowest-Income Families Are Left Behind

Job growth in the United States in 2014 was higher than in any other year since 1999, yet 1.7 million more children now live in working families with low incomes than during the Great Recession. Nearly a third of children are living in families where no one is working full time. Despite the fact that unemployment is down and consumer spending is up, the recovery has left many of our lowest income families behind, disproportionately affecting workers of color and their children.

So what's going on? Although new job growth has occurred at all wage levels, it has been disproportionate in low-wage sectors such as retail, food services and some of the lower-wage positions within health and home care. Even when parents are working full time, wages often are not adequate to support a family. Some parents who want to work can't find jobs. Rates of unemployment at the close of 2014 were in single digits and nearing their pre-recession levels for all racial and ethnic groups except African Americans. The unemployment rate for whites and Asian Americans was roughly 4.5 percent compared with a devastating 11 percent for African Americans and 6.7 percent for Latinos.

Here's why all this matters for kids. A lot. We know from research that low family income can have negative effects on children. When very young children experience poverty, particularly if that poverty is deep and if it persists, they are at high risk for difficulties later in life -- poor adolescent health, teenage childbearing, dropping out of school and poor employment outcomes. The risks start before birth. Pregnant women with inadequate nutrition and chronic health conditions associated with poverty -- such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes -- are at risk of delivering babies with low birth weight, which is associated with developmental problems.

Juggling work, childcare and transportation is challenging for all parents, but the added stress of struggling to pay the bills puts low-income parents at higher risk of depression, substance abuse and domestic violence. All of these factors can negatively impact parenting and, in turn, child well-being, including kids' performance in school and their social and emotional development. Children raised in low-income families have less access than their higher-income peers to enriching early experiences, such as high-quality preschool, books, trips to museums and a rich language environment at home.

The good news is that these are problems we know how to solve. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has long promoted two-generation strategies for helping children to thrive and succeed as they meet life's challenges. Research confirms what is grounded in common sense: the best way to facilitate optimal outcomes for today's children is to simultaneously address their needs while also bolstering their parents.

First, we need to provide parents with multiple pathways to family-supporting jobs. While we need to increase access to education and job training, it is simply not acceptable that millions of parents work full time yet can't support their families. Second, we need to ensure access to high-quality early childhood education and enriching elementary school experiences, particularly for low-income children who benefit the most. Third, we need to equip parents to better support their children socially and emotionally and to advocate for their kids' needs.

All of these goals can be achieved through sound public policy. The Casey Foundation recommends policies that promote paid sick leave and family leave to give parents needed flexibility at work, along with more stable and predictable work scheduling so parents can plan ahead. Additionally, expanded unemployment benefits will result in higher family income, reduced parental stress and an increased capacity of parents to invest in their kids. It is imperative for the long-term success of our nation that we collectively work toward solutions -- at all levels of government, the private sector and in our individual communities -- to reduce disparities and expand opportunities for the next generation.

We can't wait. To achieve long-term solutions that can end cycles of poverty and begin cycles of prosperity, we have to act now to craft child-focused policies that ultimately will strengthen families and communities and our nation.