The unemployment rate is dismally high at 9.6% and last month alone, one in every 411 homes foreclosed and 127,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy. But no one feels the sting of our economic troubles more than those living below the poverty line.

Poverty is rising in the U.S., and children and families in some areas have it worse than others.

Nationwide, 18% of children – that’s 13.2 million kids - lived in poverty in 2008, notes the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization that recently ranked states based on 2008 U.S. Census data (the most recent available), plus more recent statistics on children and families.

That’s an increase of about 1 million children nationwide living below the poverty line since the year 2000, according to the foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book, which provides analysis and rankings on elements that affect kids’ well-being.

Before we tell you which states have the most children living in poverty, let’s start with some background.

Defining Poverty

In 2008, poverty was considered an income below $21,834 for a family of two adults and two children. Currently, having an income of less than $22,050 for a family of four labels them as impoverished. The poverty line is a flat number for the 48 contiguous states, while the lines for Alaska and Hawaii are a bit higher, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

And while cost of living can vary widely by state, modest breadwinners may agree that feeding, housing and clothing a family of four with $424 or less per week anywhere in America can be challenging.

Unfortunately, while there are a few indications that the economy and the job market are improving, many experts predict the number of kids in poverty will rise when the Census Bureau releases new data later this year, the foundation says.

That’s at least partly because the unemployment rate spiked from 4.6% to 9.3% from 2007 to 2009, notes the foundation citing Economic Policy Institute data.

About 7.3 million kids lived with an unemployed parent in 2009, the Kids Count Data Book also points out.

What’s Missing

The child poverty rate today is likely much higher than 18%, suggests the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Current calculations come from 2007 and 2008 data, the most recent available, but that’s well before families were hardest hit by the recession, according to its report.

So far, the worst of the Great Recession hit Americans at the end of 2008, according to the data book, and the nationwide unemployment rate didn’t hit its 26-year high until the end of last year, as MainStreet reported.

Still, part of the picture is missing.

“In truth, none of us has a good grasp on the conditions facing America’s children because state and federal agencies collect data too infrequently and often do not measure what really matters for kids,” writes Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“Some data by state depend on records collected by Medicaid or public schools, and that can leave out kids who aren’t accounted for in those areas – dropouts and the uninsured, for instance,” McCarthy says.

What’s more, surveys aren’t conducted frequently enough, so it’s difficult to get a good sense of the impact the economy has been having on family incomes. 

McCarthy suggests that the government expand the National Survey of Children’s Health, which hasn’t been conducted since 2007 and won’t be conducted again until 2011.

Further, poverty levels are still calculated based on spending trends in the 1950s, a time when child care and health care costs were much lower and food costs made up about a third of a family’s expenses compared with one-seventh now, McCarthy writes.


Of course, families don’t have to be officially poverty-stricken to lack adequate access to food.

“Estimates are that 16.7 million children lived in households that were food insecure at some point during the year in 2008, one-third more than in 2007,” the foundation says. Those households either had to change the quality or quantity of the foods they ate or struggled to put food on the table, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Several local agencies are receiving about $400 million under a White House Healthy Food Financing Initiative for 2011 that aims to bring more healthy food stores into underserved areas. For some families, especially those living in the food deserts of Detroit and Philadelphia with little access to wholesome foods, it can’t happen soon enough.

The Best and Worst Off

The states with the highest rates of children living in poverty are Mississippi (30%), Louisiana (25%), Arkansas (25%), New Mexico (24%) and West Virginia (23%), the foundation reports.

The states with the fewest kids living in households with incomes below the poverty line are New Hampshire, where 9% of kids live below the poverty line, Hawaii and Maryland where 10% of kids live below the poverty line, and Alaska, Minnesota and Utah, where 11% live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 Kids Count Data Book.