Families on a Fault Line? The Risk of Poverty When a Child Joins the Home

Publisher: Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation
Feb 28, 2018
Marybeth J. Mattingly, Andrew Schaefer, and Douglas J. Gagnon

Key Findings:

  • Many families live with economic risk. If every US family added a child, an additional 5.2 percent of families would become poor.
  • Dramatic income increases are required to mitigate risk. For families near the fault line, a 25% increase in household income is necessary to offset the addition of a child.
  • Dynamics are unequal across groups. Family characteristics associated with high poverty are also associated with increased risk of becoming poor after adding a child. Families most at risk are black and Hispanic families, families with children, less-educated families, and those living in rural or highly urban settings.
This brief describes our use of an official poverty measure (OPM) framework to simulate who is most at risk of falling into poverty through the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child. The mathematics of poverty suggest that expenses associated with a new child may push a low-income family over a threshold—into poverty. In fact, many families live so close to the poverty line that any disruption—a health crisis, a costly car repair, job loss, or adding a child to the family—could push them into poverty. In this brief, we use the addition of a child as an illustrative example of this broader dynamic.