Nation readers know the record-setting levels of poverty in America today: nearly one in six citizens below the official poverty line of $22,300 for a family of four, including one of five kids. African-American and Hispanic children are even worse off, with poverty rates of 40 percent and 37 percent, respectively. More than one in three Americans are struggling on incomes below twice the poverty threshold—roughly $45,000 for a family of four.

In 2011, The Nation kept the plight of the poor and near-poor front and center.

When Congress debated budget cuts in the abstract, The Nation showed their real human costs; when Representatives voted against the interests of their districts, The Nation held them accountable; and when decimated state and local budgets hit poor people with a vengeance, The Nation told their stories. Finally, if you didn’t catch the year-end Occupy the Safety Net issue, check it out, you will get a clear picture of the state of the welfare system—food stamps, housing, TANF and more—it sure ain’t the hammock Congressman Paul Ryan says it is.

In 2012, will post This Week in Poverty every Friday morning as part of its continuing coverage of an issue editor Katrina vanden Heuvel calls “the shame of our nation.” The blog will track the vital statistics that are too often ignored; provide updates on legislative efforts at the national, state, and local levels; report on the battles activists are fighting in their communities; summarize cutting-edge ideas, studies, and proposals offered by antipoverty experts and organizations; find opportunities for action, highlight programs that are working, flag must-read articles, bust myths, list quotes of the week, and more.

Today, a look back at five key things we learned about poverty in 2011:

We Can Reduce Poverty

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) the poverty rate would have been nearly twice as high—just under 30 percent—if not for government assistance programs. That’s 40 million more people who would be in poverty. (Tell them the War on Poverty programs failed.) Six initiatives in the Recovery Act alone prevented nearly 7 million people from falling into poverty. But those provisions are set to expire and many of the programs that are working (or at least minimally working) are now slated for deep cuts at the federal and state levels.

Small Investment, Big Returns for Kids

Researchers Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson report what antipoverty advocates have long argued—that a little investment in poor children goes a long way. The authors use data tracking children born between 1968 and 1975, and their adult outcomes between ages 30 and 37. Among the findings, for families with average incomes below $25,000 during early childhood (prenatal to five), “a $3000 annual boost to family income is associated with a 17 percent increase in adult earnings” and “135 additional work hours per year after age 25.” The article also indicates higher achievement for kids in preschool and elementary school. Young children whose families did not receive the aid were found to have significantly worse adult outcomes in years of schooling, earnings, receipt of food stamps, poor health, arrests, and non-marital births. The authors advocate expanding income-supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and cash assistance during early childhood. But the nation is moving dramatically in the opposite direction—see #3. (Also, for an excellent graphic representation of the intersection between public policy and child poverty check out “Brain Hero” from the School of Cinematic Arts at USC and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard.)

TANF Is Broken

In 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) which had guaranteed cash welfare to poor families with kids since 1935. The deal severely limited available funds, freezing block grants at 1996 levels without indexing them to inflation (unlike campaign contribution limits, for example). The states were also allowed wide discretion in terms of eligibility, benefit levels and how the funds would be used.

The results of “reform” are now in: prior to the legislation, for every 100 poor families with children, 68 received cash assistance through AFDC. In 2009 that number plummeted to twenty-seven for every 100 poor families. And since the block grants are stuck in a 1996 time warp, those dollars don’t go as far. Adjusted for inflation, benefit levels have fallen by 20 percent or more in thirty-four states, and a majority of states provide benefits at less than 30 percent of the poverty line (about $5,200 for a family of three).

The recent payroll tax extension also extended TANF “as is” until February 29, 2012. President Obama and Congress should look to Wisconsin Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE Act for guidance when reauthorization rolls around. Among the reforms in the legislation: adjusting each state’s block grant for inflation; allowing education and job training to count towards work requirements; providing childcare for all work-eligible parents; and prohibiting time limits of less than sixty months.

We Need Subsidized Jobs

One of the notable successes of the Recovery Act was the TANF Emergency Fund (TANF EF) which placed more than 260,000 low-income parents and youth in subsidized jobs in thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia at a cost of $1.3 billion. Despite bipartisan support at the state level, Congress failed to extend the public-private partnership at the end of 2010 and most of those jobs ended last year.

In addition to the jobs created, CBPP notes many of the program’s other accomplishments, including: helping low-income families avert homelessness, stimulating local economies, and allowing flexibility so that both cities and rural communities were able to implement successful programs. A provision of President Obama’s American Jobs Act would have created a $5 billion fund modeled after TANF EF. That’s a fight anyone who cares about poverty—and over 13 million unemployed Americans—needs to continue to wage.

“Housing Policy Is Health Policy”

New research from Children’s HealthWatch—a research group bringing evidence and analysis from the front lines of pediatric care to policy makers—demonstrates the impact on toddlers and infants of housing insecurity, defined as families moving two or more times in twelve months, crowded with more than two people per bedroom, or doubled up with another family.

Children’s HealthWatch studied 22,000 low-income families with children under age three and found that those children in housing insecure families are more likely to be food insecure, in fair or poor health, at risk for developmental delays, and seriously underweight (even after accounting for other possible factors, like maternal education).

The implications are clear. As HUD Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation president and CEO Risa Lazzio-Mourey summarize in a recent Roll Call op-ed, “Housing policy is health policy.”

But despite rising need, the number of families receiving federally funded rental assistance has barely budged in the last decade. Currently, only one in four households qualifying for housing assistance actually receives it, and even fewer families will be served in 2012 and 2013 under recent budget agreements.

“Investment in affordable and subsidized housing would not only reduce housing and food insecurity but would improve the health and potential for school success of our nation’s young children,” concludes Children’s HealthWatch.

This Week in Poverty will appear every Friday morning at