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Number of orphaned children in the Black community is growing rapidly: Congress must help

When people think of orphaned children, they likely think of a bygone era in U.S. history when death, poverty, and orphanages were common. However, new numbers from the Census Bureau paint a picture of a modern-day U.S. where millions of children have lost one or both parents.

The data release provides estimates of the percentage of children in the United States who are paternal orphans (father has died), maternal orphans (mother has died), or double orphans (both parents are deceased). 

The Census Bureau estimates that 4.3 percent of children (ages 0-17) in the U.S. have lost one or both parents due to death. Given that there are 74 million children in the U.S., this means there are about 3.2 million paternal, maternal, or double orphans in the country.

The new Census numbers also indicate that the number of orphaned children in the U.S. has been growing rapidly in recent years. In 2014, Census estimated there were about 2 million children who had lost a parent due to death (only about two-thirds of the current estimated number).

Additionally, the experience of Black children is dramatically different than for any other race or ethnic group in the country. Shockingly, almost 10 percent of Black children have one or both parents who are deceased. For children whose race is white or Asian, the figures are 3.3 percent and 1.4 percent respectively. The figure for Hispanics (of any race) is 4.2 percent.

The Census Bureau notes that between 2019 and 2021, there was a large and statistically significant increase in the percentage of Black children with one or both parents deceased, which is possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Currently, there are approximately 10 million Black children in the U.S., meaning roughly 1 million Black children in modern-day, affluent America have experienced the loss of one or both parents due to death. Policymakers and community leaders need to take a hard look at the continuing health disparities in the country that underlie such statistics.

They also need to pay more attention to federal programs that support children in these situations. In 1939, under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt, legislation was enacted to provide Social Security benefits for children in cases where a working parent passed away. Reflecting FDR’s stunning influence on America, more than 26 million orphans have received benefits from Social Security since 1940.

These days, however, policymakers show little interest in examining the policy rules around child benefits. In addition, policymakers and government officials have been ineffective at even administering these benefits.

Recently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) began publishing statistics on beneficiaries by race. There are approximately 260,000 Black children receiving survivor benefits from Social Security. With nearly 1 million orphaned Black children in the country, a natural question policymakers should ask is “Where are the missing beneficiaries?”

Black children may miss out on survivor benefits because of eligibility requirements, such as the parent not having sufficient work in Social Security-covered employment. Policymakers should acknowledge the reality on the ground and ask whether those eligibility requirements need to be updated.

Black children also miss out on survivor benefits because of mistakes by SSA, a lack of awareness of benefit eligibility, and budget cuts to SSA’s administrative budget.

In recent years, SSA has had trouble administering child benefits. For example, a long-standing computer glitch prevented the payment of child benefits to perhaps tens of thousands of children.

Did the agency ever fix the glitch and make whole the children that were missed? Did Congress even bother to ask questions about children who missed out on benefits? The lack of interest by the federal government with regard to the welfare of children — particularly Black children — has done serious damage to the country.

Lack of awareness of benefit eligibility is also a serious issue with regard to child survivor benefits. The death of one or both parents often unleashes chaotic family transitions in which the child ends up living with an aunt, grandparent, or family friend — sometimes a combination in succession. These new caregivers are unlikely to know about Social Security benefits earned by the deceased parent and applications are simply not filed with SSA. 

Even in cases where the child lives with a surviving parent, information gaps exist. SSA used to mail out Social Security Statements to workers, which informed the worker and the family of Social Security benefits in the event of disability or death. Nowadays, because of year-in and year-out cuts by Congress to SSA’s administrative budget, only workers close to retirement receive statements.

This leaves younger and middle-aged Americans uninformed about Social Security’s retirement, disability, and survivor benefits. There is bipartisan interest in bringing statements back for younger and middle-aged Americans, but there will be concerns about the printing and mailing costs crowding out other services SSA provides with its annual appropriation.

A simple solution would be to enact legislation that requires a certain number of statements be mailed each year with funding automatically (without an appropriation) coming from the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund. The DI Trust Fund is projected to be solvent for the next 75 years, and the modest costs of mailing periodic statements would not change that.

In addition, policymakers and government officials need to ensure robust communication with community and national groups, particularly those that serve members of the Black community, about the availability of child benefits from Social Security when a parent dies.

Finally, while Congress has routinely underfunded SSA’s administrative budget, it has provided a large research budget to the agency. Indeed, the Census data collection that contains information on orphans is financially supported by SSA’s research arm. That support should continue, but SSA also needs to follow up with internal and extramural research studies on child survivors.

Research conducted or sponsored by SSA should focus on understanding the economic and social circumstances and outcomes of child survivors, as well as the factors that affect the receipt of Social Security benefits. Such research may spur a complacent Congress into action.

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any federal agency.

Tags Black community children coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 pandemic health disparities orphans Social Security Social Security Administration Social Security benefits social security cuts United States Census Bureau

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