It's Not Just About the Poor Kids

A new report issued by The Foundation for Child Development measures the relationship between family income and child well-being, looking not just at poverty, but also at the declining fortunes of middle middle class families.

Declining Fortunes of Children in Middle-Class Families: Economic Inequality and Child Well-Being in the 21st Century tells the story less told, revealing that not only low-income families are at risk, but middle-class families are also increasingly at risk for poor childhood outcomes. The study looked at ten indicators of child well-being over a twenty-four year period (1985-2008), for families at all income levels. Dimensions of well-being assessed included: (1) median family income, (2) secure parental employment, (3) health insurance coverage, (4) pre-kindergarten enrollment, (5) percentage of idle or disconnected youth, (6) percentage of children with very good or excellent health, (7) obesity, (8) activity limitations, (9) one-parent families and (10) residential mobility. 

The study’s key findings are mixed:

  • Overall, the well-being of America’s children increased between 1992 and 2000, but then has fallen from its peak in 2000.
  • Children in middle-class families are increasingly likely to rely on public programs like Prekindergarten and public health insurance programs. 
  • Between 1985 and 2008, the proportion of children in middle-class families not covered by health insurance declined by 50% (from 20% to 10% of all children). 
  • The proportion of middle-class children living in single-parent households rose from 14% to 23%. 
  • The gap between middle-class and high-income families with secure parental employment increased by one third between 2000 and 2008. 
  • Overall funding at the state, local and federal level has increased for prekindergarten programs. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has made health care coverage possible for many more children. 
  • Enrollment in Head Start programs has been on the rise, but there are still only half as many slots as needed. 

The Take-Away: A growing share of children are at-risk for poor outcomes and can benefit from early public investments that promote health and brain development. With fifty percent of Shelby County’s children living in economically insecure homes (TUCI, 2010), it is important to encourage our legislators to continue to invest in programs that provide healthcare and early education opportunities to our children. 


Foundation for Child Development (2011). Declining Fortunes of Children in Middle-Class Families: Economic Inequality and Child Well-Being in the 21st Century. Available at: