WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Years of economic setbacks have taken their toll on the nation's youngest residents, with another 1.6 million children living in high-poverty neighborhoods, according to one study that shows nearly 8 million children residing in poor areas in 2010.
In 2000, 6.3 million children lived in high poverty in the United States, a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found.
The growth - a 25 percent increase - reverses the trend just a decade ago that saw fewer children living in communities with high poverty rates, according to the nonprofit group.
And three-quarters of those children live in such areas despite having at least one parent working, the study showed.
The findings reflect the hit the U.S. economy took during and after the 2007-2009 recession even as signs now point to steady recovery. The nation's jobs market has improved, the number of home sales has grown and recent gains on Wall Street have prompted optimism among investors.
"The recession has really set back much of the progress that was made in the 1990s when poverty went down," Robert Sampson, a professor of social sciences at Harvard University and head of the Social Sciences Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the foundation, said the data is a key indicator because the poverty children face growing up can have a direct impact on their success as adults.
"Their families have a harder time providing for basic necessities like good housing, being able to access health insurance and good quality health care," Speer said. "Kids who attend schools that are in low-income communities ... tend to struggle in school in lots of different ways."
The foundation, which focuses on children and family issues, gathered the data looking at U.S. Census data from 2010, the latest year available.
The study defined high-poverty communities as those areas where 30 percent or more are in poverty, defined by the federal government in 2010 as annual income of less than $22,314 for a family of four.
NEIGHBORHOOD EFFECT UNCLEAR
Still, while many experts say the effects on children and families who themselves are poor is clear, the impact of poor neighborhoods is still an area of debate.
"I think the geographic dimension is less understood or well known," said Harvard's Sampson, author of "Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect," a book based on 10 years of research.
The recession has exacerbated children's exposure to poverty, and his research shows it can set back their learning the equivalent of a year, he said. That can be difficult to change, Sampson said, and policies need to target both individuals and communities.
"Neighborhoods get locked into the poverty," he said.
Greg Duncan, an education professor at the University of California, Irvine, said when it comes to "the double whammy of both family poverty and neighborhood poverty" the data is far less clear on the impact of where people live.
"How much that really effects how kids turn out when they are adults - that is still somewhat contentious," he said.
But, he added, "we worry about both what it means for kids, what it means for the next generation of workers, what it means for the nation's future prosperity."
Lawrence Mead, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University, said the rise in children living in poverty is dramatic, but that their environment is less a factor than whether their parents work and whether both parents are at home.
"The environment outside the home doesn't add a whole," said Mead, who is also a visiting scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.
The foundation's Speer said the effect of living in a poor community varies depending on whether it is in a more isolated rural one or an urban area. Overall, the report found children living in rural areas and large cities were considerably more likely than youth in the suburbs to live in concentrated poverty.
States with the highest rates of children living in poor areas are Mississippi, New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona.
Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Fresno and Atlanta showed the highest rates of children living in areas of concentrated poverty among the 50 largest U.S. cities.
(Reporting By Susan Heavey)