Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Employment Alone is Not Enough
40% of Children Have Parents Who Can’t Earn Enough to Provide Basic Necessities

New York — As middle-class families consider how to spend their child tax credit checks, a new report from the National Center for Children in Poverty finds that low-income families -- largely left out of the tax breaks -- aren't struggling to get ahead but just to maintain their footing.

The report, Living at the Edge: Employment Alone is Not Enough shows why work is not enough to help people move into economic self-sufficiency. As families increase their earnings above the federal poverty level, they rapidly lose eligibility for the kinds of benefits like health care and child care subsidies that help them keep their jobs and work themselves into a better standard of living. At least 27 million children live in such families.

“In most instances, families with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level face the same material hardships and financial pressures as the families who are officially acknowledged as poor,” says Dr. Lawrence Aber, Director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. “For instance, working parents whose income puts them at 150 percent of the federal poverty level may lose eligibility for child care subsidies before they make enough money to pay for stable child care arrangements.

“The fact that our public policies often don’t acknowledge how hard it is for people to move from poverty to economic self-sufficiency means we aren’t giving people the tools they need to create better lives for themselves,” said Dr. Aber.

Other findings from Employment Alone is Not Enough include:

  • 85% of low-income families have at least one working parent -— more than at any time in the last decade.
  • 40% of all children in the United States have parents who can’t work their way to economic success any time soon.

The number of children living in low-income families declined during the 1990s due, in large part, to a booming economy and public policies that supported and rewarded low-wage employment. According to Employment Alone is Not Enough , it’s crucial that we continue to reduce the burden of taxes and work related expenses on low-income working families, even given the current financial situation, if we are to address the economic disparity in this country.

Examples of policies that should be pursued, according to the report are:

  • Protect the expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which lifts close to 5 million people -— half of them children -- out of poverty annually.
  • Decrease the payroll tax burden on low-wage workers.
  • Provide working parents with health insurance coverage.
  • Help low-income parents with child care costs.

The federal poverty level for a family of four is $18,400. Research by NCCP and others shows that, in most areas of the U.S., it takes double that amount to provide a family with the basic necessities of food and clothing.