The Census Bureau released poverty rates from the Current Population Survey (CPS) last month, revealing child poverty from 2010 to 2011 remained a steady high at close to 22 percent. But this is not the whole story. Also released last month was data from the American Community Survey (ACS), the only reliable, timely survey with state- and local-level data. A First Focus analysis reveals that certain states with low child poverty experienced significant increases over the same year, with implications well beyond the borders of those states.

Perhaps most surprising was that the five states with the largest increases in child poverty from 2010 to 2011 (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Alaska) were all states with child poverty rates lower than or equal to the national average. Though these states still have a relatively low percentage of children living in poverty, especially compared to other states with historically high rates of child poverty, such as Mississippi (31.8 percent), New Mexico (30.7 percent) and the District of Columbia (30.3 percent), such fast growth of child poverty is a troubling trend. States that have historically invested in children enough to keep child poverty rates low, even during the worst of the recession, now seem unable to hold off the pervasive spread of child poverty.

If left unchecked, child poverty in the states with quickly growing rates could surpass even those states with already high child poverty, resulting in substantially more children living in poverty nationwide. The past two years have seen the highest child poverty rate in 20 years, which makes any additional increases devastating for those children, their families and the future of this country.

Poverty affects children in profound and long-lasting ways. Gaps in education between children from low- and high-income families appear before a child even enters kindergarten and have long-lasting effects throughout school and beyond. Children living in poverty are more likely to experience food insecurity and to live in unsafe housing. Stress from poverty negatively affects young children’s development, leading to high incidence of cardiovascular, respiratory and psychiatric diseases in adulthood, and an adult’s cognitive and social skills depend on the environment they lived in during their early years. So it is important that the high rate of child poverty growth, and the high rate of child poverty nationwide, do not go unchecked.

With child poverty growing so quickly in states that have historically invested enough in children to keep child poverty low, it is clear that state-level investments alone are not sufficient to keep children out of poverty.

Congress must invest more in children to keep them out of poverty across the country, and they can start during the lame duck by reauthorizing and strengthening key supports such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to better serve children living in poverty; by preserving funding for food stamps (SNAP), which helps feed 20 million children each year; and reauthorizing and strengthening tax credits for families with children, such as the Child Tax Credit (CTC), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC). After the lame duck, to reverse the trend of growing child poverty the new Congress should set a child poverty target and develop milestones to reduce the number of children living in poverty, much like Britain has done with some success.