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Picture Book Portrayals of Economic Struggle in the U.S.: What do the numbers say?

This guest post is co-authored by our summer MLIS graduate student interns, Karen Wang and Sanura Williams. The topic was inspired by Bates student Alex Gilbertson '22, from one of her final projects for our Co-founder and Director Dr. Krista Aronson's Psychology course called "The Power of Picture Books."


Here at the Diverse BookFinder, our goal is to collect every picture book featuring Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC). A comprehensive collection makes it possible to identify recent trends in the field of multicultural children’s literature and advocate for positive change. In this post, our focus is on trends in picture book portrayals of economic hardship in the U.S.

Using our Search Tool's Settings and Content filters, we analyzed all the titles in our collection that are set in the "United States" and that address "economic struggle." There were 127 in total at the time of this post. Comparing the depictions in these books to national demographic data, we identified some disparities in representation that we highlight below, particularly the disproportionate overrepresentation of Black characters in these titles. We hope our insights encourage publishing professionals, librarians, educators, and parents to reconsider the stories and voices that comprise their own collections and curated lists.

We identified disparities in representation, particularly the disproportionate overrepresentation of Black characters in these titles. We hope our insights encourage publishing professionals, librarians, educators, and parents to reconsider the stories and voices that comprise their own collections and curated lists.

Racial disparities and poverty in the U.S.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines economic hardship as “difficulty caused by having too little money or too few resources.” Issues such as homelessness, low income, a lack of access to adequate healthcare, and food insecurity fall under the umbrella of economic hardship and are often viewed as adult problems. But these adults are very often the heads of households that include children. According to 2018 U.S. Census data, almost one-third of the 38.1 million people living in poverty were under the age of 18—about 11.9 million children. Unfortunately, children under the age of 18 experienced poverty at a higher rate than adults: The poverty rate for children under 18 was 16.2%, as compared to 10.7% for adults aged 18-64 and 9.7% for adults aged 65 or older.

Graph created using 2018 U.S. Census data.

When you add race and ethnicity to the equation, the statistics are even more startling. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), in 2016, Hispanic children comprised 26% of the total population under the age of 9, but comprised 36% of young children living in low-income families. Non-Hispanic Black children comprised 13% of the total population under the age of 9, but comprised 20% of young children living in low-income families. In addition, American Indian, Non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic young children were more likely to be low-income than their counterparts who identified as White, Asian, or “Other."

Figure from National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP): Jiang, Y., & Koball, H. (2018). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2016. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has both shed a harsh light on and exacerbated the vast economic disparities between white and BIPOC communities. In the U.S., Latinx and Black people have been three times as likely to become infected and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as their white neighbors, according to a recent analysis of C.D.C. data conducted by The New York Times.

As adults, we often feel it is our responsibility to shelter children from the harsh realities of life. But while they may not entirely understand the economic challenges their families face, children may sense something is wrong. In these instances, picture books can serve as a tool to help facilitate these tough discussions.

Picture book portrayals of economic struggle

Of the picture books in our collection, 844 titles are explicitly set in the United States but only 127 of these titles address the topic of economic struggle—meaning the book’s characters struggle with unemployment, poverty, or access to fundamental needs (food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare) as part of its storyline.

This means that only 15% of U.S.-set diverse picture books published since 2002 portray people’s experiences facing economic hardship. In contrast, NCCP found that in 2016, 44% of young children nationwide were living in low-income families—more than 15 million children. Approximately 65% of these young children identified as BIPOC. Based on these numbers, it’s clear that unfortunately, many children in our country have first-hand experience with economic struggle. Therefore, it should not be rare to find acknowledgement of this experience in children’s literature. Lack of representation of low-income families could contribute to children feeling marginalized or ashamed of their economic status, never feeling seen. It is important for children to see themselves reflected and to recognize that they are not alone.

Many children in our country have first-hand experience with economic struggle -- it should not be rare to find acknowledgement of this experience in children’s literature.

Of these 127 titles currently in the collection:

  • Black/African American characters are represented in 63% of the books, Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American characters are represented in 21% of the books, Asian characters are represented in 8% of the books, and Native/Indigenous characters are represented in 5% of the books
  • 26% of the books discuss financial hardships such as growing up in poverty, raising money to help those in need, and taking on odd jobs to make ends meet
  • 5% of the books specifically address homelessness and 2% specifically address food insecurity
  • 57% of the books address overcoming adversity such as racism, emigrating to a new country, or coming from an impoverished background

Diverse BookFinder’s collection does not include all of the children’s books published on the topic of economic struggle (see our collection inclusion criteria here), but the titles we do have highlight gaps and disparities in representation that are worth addressing. Black characters are greatly overrepresented, Asian and Native/Indigenous characters are slightly overrepresented, and Latinx characters are underrepresented. Our findings are based on reviewing our collection alongside NCCP’s analysis of 2016 U.S. Census data. According to NCCP, out of all non-white children under the age of 9 in low-income households that year, 31% were Black. In contrast, out of all the books in our collection set in the U.S. that address economic struggle, 63% feature Black/African American characters. See below for further comparisons.

*Data from National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP): Jiang, Y., & Koball, H. (2018). Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Children under 18 Years, 2016. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Balanced depictions for fuller representation and rich conversation

Below are a few books from our collection that portray the complexity and range of experiences among families facing economic challenges.

While these books tackle weighty issues that significantly impact families across the country, they also speak to the resilience, creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of individuals in the face of poverty, homelessness, and other economic struggles. Not only can these titles serve as encouragement for those personally navigating these hardships, but they can help build empathy in those who don't face this economic reality, encouraging them to discover ways to help those in need.

While our focus is so often on underrepresentation of BIPOC, overrepresentation also plays its part... Are negative stereotypes being perpetuated? And what stories aren’t being told?

Finally, those of us who advocate for more diverse books have to be mindful of the effects of certain kinds of representations. While our focus is so often on underrepresentation of BIPOC, overrepresentation also plays its part. Based on the data shared above, there is no shortage of representation of Black characters in books about economic struggle. While this is certainly an issue that impacts the Black community, when they’re overrepresented in this way, are negative stereotypes being perpetuated? And what stories aren’t being told? Whose hardships aren’t being represented and addressed? And the onus doesn’t just fall on book advocates, but on the publishing industry as well that has a responsibility to constantly evaluate which stories they allow to reach our bookshelves and which stories they do not.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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