2021 State of America’s Children: ‘Our Children Are Not Immune’ 


April 7, 2021

A Black U.S. public school student was suspended every four seconds in 2019, based on a 180-day school year. Every 28 seconds, a Latinx student dropped out of high school. And every 33 minutes, An American Indian/Alaskan Native student was arrested. 

Those are just some nuggets of information included in the latest State of America’s Children report, an annual report published by the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Most of the data sets included in the report precede the pandemic; however, to their credit, the report’s authors have found both anecdotal and statistical information to make the argument that things have gotten worse for children since the pandemic began – a lot worse. 

This year’s report provides detailed information on 12 issues impacting children’s lives: child population, child poverty, income and wealth inequality, housing and homelessness, child hunger and nutrition, child health, early childhood, education, child welfare, juvenile justice, gun violence, and immigration. 

Here is a look at some of the report’s highlights, taken from the 12 issue categories: 

Child population. In 2020, for the first time ever, children of color made up a majority of children in the U.S. 

Child poverty. More than 10 million children – nearly one in seven (14.4 percent) — lived in poverty in 2019, according to the official federal poverty measure. Almost half of all children living in poverty lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as half the poverty threshold or an annual income of $13,086 for a family of four. “Historic, systemic racism and institutional barriers mean that children of color have been particularly vulnerable to child poverty,” the report states. “Black and Hispanic children experienced some of the highest poverty rates in the country, and 71 percent of children in poverty in 2019 were children of color.” 

Although it may be years before we know the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic has worsened poverty for children, the report’s authors cite statistics reported by researchers at Columbia University in October showing that 8 million Americans – including 2.5 million children – fell into poverty after May 2020, as early rounds of COVID-19 relief – such as stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits – expired. 

Income and wealth inequality. In 2019, the median white family had almost eight times more wealth than the median Black family and five times more than the median Latinx family. Incomes have exploded for the rich, while creeping up slowly for the vast majority of wage earners. “Slow-growing family income means that economic mobility is on the decline and children born into low-income families may grow up to make less money than their parents,” the report states. 

The report notes that during the pandemic, more than half of families with children experienced a job loss or a loss of income, with those losses concentrated at the lower end of income distribution. 

Housing and homelessness. More than 1.5 million children enrolled in public schools experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, the report found. “Black families are more likely to experience eviction, homelessness, and segregated housing and neighborhoods due to racist policies built into our housing system,” the report states. 

The report found that the pandemic has accelerated the nationwide affordable housing crisis and the racial inequities in housing. “By February 2021, the hardship facing renter families with children was staggering,” the report concludes. “More than a quarter of renter families with children were behind in their rent. In February, nearly four in ten of those families reported little or no confidence in their ability to pay the next month’s rent.” 

Child hunger and nutrition. More than one in seven children lived in food-insecure households before the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Latinx children were twice as likely to live in food-insecure households as white children. Nearly one in four Black children (24.1 percent) and one in five Latinx children (19.2 percent) lived in households that did not get enough to eat in 2019, compared with one in nine white children (11 percent). 

Child health. 726,000 children lost health insurance between 2016 and 2019. “In 2019, an estimated 5.7 percent of children under age 19 (nearly 4.4 million) were uninsured – an increase of 320,000 children since 2018,” the report states. “This is the third year in a row the number of uninsured children hagrown and it is the largest increase in more than a decade.” 

The report found that as of February 25, 2021, 3.2 million total child cases of COVID-19 were reported, representing 13.1 percent of all cases. Between February and July 2020, 78 percent of all children who died from COVID-19 were Latinx, Black, and American Indian children, even though they make up only 41 percent of the population. 

Early childhood. In 2019, center-based child care for an infant cost more than public college tuition in 28 states plus D.C. 

Education. 14 million children in 2019 attended schools with police, but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. This is despite evidence that schools with these types of supports “see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates, as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents.” 

The report found that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an educational crisis that will affect this generation for the rest of their lives. “While many school districts provided some distance learning opportunities during the 2019-2020 school year, children with disabilities, children from low-income and unemployed families, children living in rural communities, and children of color faced many barriers to accessing this modified education – including insufficient Internet access, lack of support for online learning due to parent work schedules, and inability to effectively learn via modified formats, among others,” the report states. 

Child welfare. In 2019, 651,505 children were victims of abuse or neglect in the U.S., a decrease of 21,643 compared to the previous year. That means, on average, a child is abused or neglected every 48 seconds, 1,785 children each day. More than half of all child maltreatment cases in 2019 involved children who were six years old or younger, with 14.9 percent of cases involving infants under one. Of these children, 251,359 entered foster care. 

Youth justice. In 2019, 530,581 children were arrested in the U.S. A child or teen was arrested every 59 seconds despite a 67 percent reduction in child arrests between 2009 and 2019. During the 2015-2016 school year alone, there were over 61,000 school arrests and 230,000 referrals to law enforcement, largely overrepresented by students with disabilities, Black students, and Indigenous students. 

As of late February 2021, more than 3,750 young people in juvenile facilities and even more staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across 41 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. “The roughly 44,000 incarcerated children across the country are living in fear of COVID-19 and are facing solitary confinement as a form of social distancing, limited access to PPE, limited or no visitations or contact with loved ones, and limited educational and recreational activities,” the report warns. “To date, their needs have been largely ignored by federal lawmakers as they have crafted legislation to respond to the crisis.” 

Gun violence. In 2019, a child or teen was killed with a gun every two hours and 36 minutes. “Gun violence was the leading cause of death for all children and teens ages 1-19, surpassing motor vehicle accidents for the first time in history,” the report states. “Since 1963, nearly 193,000 children and teens have been killed with guns on American soil – more than four times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action in the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined.” 

Although Black children and teens made up only 14 percent of all children in the U.S. in 2019, the report found that they accounted for 43 percent of all children and gun deaths. 

Immigrant children. One in four children in the U.S. — approximately 18 million – are children of immigrants, and the report finds that many suffered under the Trump Administration in myriad ways. “In direct opposition to children’s well-being, the Trump Administration’s four-year legacy of dangerous, reckless policy choices has created a climate of confusion, fear, and impossible choices,” the report states. “The Administration continuously attacked family unity, a foundational principle of child welfare protected by the U.S. Constitution.” 

In a moving introduction to the report, CDC’s new President and CEO, the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, acknowledges the sweeping changes COVID-19 has inflicted upon all aspects of work life, society, and children – changes that are not yet wholly reflected in the report’s statistics. 

“Every aspect of American life in the social sector has been impacted by these shifts more quickly than data can track; even the most recent available data sets do not fully encompass how this past year has shaped our lives,” he writes. “This, of course, includes our 2021 State of America’s Children report. Because, as one element of the report makes clear ‘Our Children are Not Immune’.” 

And he issues a challenge for readers. 

“Allow this data, compiled by our extraordinary public policy team, to inform your disciplined reflection,” he writes. “But don’t stop there. Pause and imagine a country where flourishing children smile, sing, and dance. Talk to young people about what they desire for their lives. Then gather your neighbors, friends, and colleagues to work together and improve the state of America’s children. We will be with you every step of the way.”

Children's Defense Fund
State of America's Children