What Economic Recovery? More American Kids Are Homeless than Ever -- The 5 Worst States for Child Homelessness

For months, the financial press has joyously trotted out indicators of economic recovery: the official unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent in October, the stock market is at record highs, the budget deficit has hit a record low. When 78 percent of voters said they were worried about the economy in midterm exit polls, some finance journalists puzzled over why Americans didn't appreciate how good things are these days. But as NPR and many others noted, the positive numbers don't square with many Americans' lived experience. Despite promising economic trends, millions of Americans can only find part-time work, many have gotten discouraged and given up looking for jobs, and for those who have work, wages are barely keeping up with inflation, NPR notes. 

Here's another stark reminder of how terribly many poor Americans are doing, the stock market's impressive performance notwithstanding. According to a new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1 out of every 30 kids in America is homeless. That's 2.5 million children living in shelters, on the street, in cars, or doubled up in unstable housing with family or friends (who are likely suffering financial or housing instability as well). 

"The impact of the Great Recession has really lingered for poor families despite other positive turns in the economy," Dr. Carmela DeCandia, the group's director, tells AlterNet. "Poverty is the driving factor behind family homelessness." In 2013, 45 million Americans lived in poverty, struggling to survive on an income at or below $19,530 for a family of 3, according to government statistics highlighted in the report. 7% of Americans live in extreme poverty, with an income less than $11,157 for a family of four.

DeCandia says families headed by young single women are particularly at risk, given a lack of employment opportunities for women with kids. "Parenting alone, homeless mothers have sole childrearing, homemaking, and breadwinning responsibilities," notes the report. Families headed by single women are some of the poorest. 

Then there's the harsh disparity between the minimum wage in many states and the high cost of housing. "Sometimes there's a threefold difference between the minimum wage and the income needed to get a two bedroom apartment," DeCandia notes. "Put all that together, and it's not really all that surprising that more families are ending up homeless."

In addition to their financial hardships, a shocking number of homeless women have been traumatized by violence and rape, leading to rampant depression and anxiety disorders. Studies show that up to 90% of homeless women have been exposed to traumatic events  such as sexual abuse as children and rape and domestic violence as adults. "These experiences profoundly impact a mother’s ability to become residentially stable, find jobs that pay livable wages, form trusting relationships, parent effectively, and have good long-term health outcomes," notes the report.

Unsurprisingly, homeless families do not have access to quality mental health care. "There's a lot of difficulty in families accessing health care," says Dr. DeCandia. "Not all have health insurance. There aren't always enough providers in communities and there's a stigma. People don't want to reveal their homelessness for fear of child welfare involvement." 

Their caretakers' trauma, combined with the insecurity of homelessness, which is traumatic in itself, can lead to lifelong problems for kids. "The impact of homelessness on the children, especially young children, is devastating and may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self- regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships," the report's authors note. 

Family homelessness was not a big problem in America until the 1980s, when cuts to social programs -- particularly low-income housing  -- sent many poor families into the street. In the aftermath of Katrina 1.5 million kids experienced homelessness. That number dropped to 1.2 after some of those families were resettled. But by 2010, child homelessness had shot back up to 1.6 million kids, thanks to the Great Recession and the housing crisis, and rates of child homelessness continue to climb. According to the report, child homelessness surged by 8% nationally in 2013 alone. 31 states and the District of Columbia saw a rise in child homelessness between 2012 and 2013. 

On top of all that, a discrepancy in the way the government measures family homelessness means many families get skipped over for housing help and other financial aid. Currently, HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) does not count families jammed into other people's homes, despite the instability of these arrangements and the fact that they are often temporary (the Department of Education does count doubled up families as homeless.)

"We need to get on the same page when it comes to who's homeless," DeCandia says. "Otherwise, people who need aid are not eligible for some housing subsidies, vouchers, housing programs and services that go along with that. On top of that, there aren't enough subsidies and vouchers to go around. There's already a long wait list for families in the system that are eligible."

Meanwhile, DeCandia says individual states must start setting up interagency councils and creating state plans with concrete policy strategies to address the problem. "It's really a solvable issue," DeCandia contends. "Unfortunately, these kids have been quite invisible -- they haven't gotten the attention they need and their numbers continue to rise. We need to take decisive action."

The report concludes with the following recommendation: 

The solution to child homelessness starts with agreeing as a nation that children living doubled-up in basements and attics with relatives and friends are homeless and need our help. The next step is to ensure an adequate supply of safe, affordable housing combined with essential services. To remain housed, mothers need employment opportunities that provide adequate income; this necessitates education, job training, transportation, and childcare. 

Here are 5 states with the worst child homelessness problem, as rated by the report. 

1. Alabama

59,349 Alabama kids were homeless during the 2012-2013 school year; 35,239 the year before. Alabama's minimum wage is $7.25, while a two bedroom apartment requires that tenants make $13.34 an hour. 27 percent of Alabama's children live in poverty. 

2. Mississippi

26,108 kids in Mississippi don't have homes. Like Alabama, the state's minimum wage is $7.25. The state has even higher rates of child poverty: 35 percent of Mississippi's children are impoverished. 

3. California

California has one of the highest rates of child homelessness in the country: 526, 708 lack stable housing. At 8 dollars per hour, California's minimum wage is higher than in the South. But tenants must make a whopping $25.78 per hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment there.

4. Arkansas

21,704 Arkansas kids were homeless in 2013. Like much of the South, their parents can hope for a $7.25 an hour minimum wage tops, despite a two bedroom house requiring income almost twice that. 

5. New Mexico

29 percent of New Mexico's kids live in poverty. Of those, 22,463 are homeless. The income required to rent a family-sized apartment is almost double the minimum wage. 

Read the whole report here. 

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