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Federal Study Finds Dramatic Rise in Number of Poor Children

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Washington--The number of children living in poverty in the United States is at the highest level in 20 years, according to a Congressional study released last week.

The poverty rate reached 22.2 children per 100 in 1983, the highest level since the mid-1960's, notes the 670\page report prepared by the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office.

The number of children in poverty totaled 13.8 million in 1983, the document says, and more than half of those children lived in families headed by a woman.

Race Differences

Moreover, according to the report, a child's chances of being poor varied sharply by race, parents' educational attainment, presence of the father, and marital status of the mother. "The data show family type and race have profound impact on poverty rates," it states.

While half of all black children and a third of all Hispanic children are poor, it notes, five-sixths of all white children are not poor.

The study reveals that while child poverty has been a persistent problem over the past quarter-century, the gains that were made in reducing the poverty rates for children in the 1960's were reversed during the 1970's and early 1980's.

During the 24-year period between 1959 and 1983, it states, "the incidence of child poverty was cut almost in half during the first 10 years, to a record low of 13.8 children per 100 in 1969. Thereafter, the trend reversed. By 1983, although it still was below its 1959 level, the child poverty rate had climbed almost 60 percent above its 1969 low."

Federal Intervention

Noting that for a variety of nutritional, medical, and psychological reasons, "poor children are more likely than others to fare badly at school," the report discusses the strategy of expanding federal education programs to combat the adverse effects of poverty on children.

Although it cites conflicting studies on the effectiveness of the Head Start program, for instance, the report also suggests that expanding it would: increase poor children's access to social and health services; provide them with additional educational stimulation; make it "feasible for additional parents to work by providing day care;" and provide "employment training for the mothers of some low-income children."

But the report warns that "the cost of a sizable expansion of Head Start could be high."

Compensatory-education programs, such as the Chapter 1 program for educationally disadvantaged children, were found by the report's authors "to be highly effective in targeting fiscal relief to districts with large numbers of poor children."

But the report adds that "in real terms, the 1985 appropriation for Chapter 1 is roughly 29 percent lower than the 1979 appropriation" and that "the real funding per poor child has declined even more markedly; in 1983, real appropriations per8child in poverty were 53 percent of the 1979 level."

The report says that while an increase of $1.5 billion in funding for Chapter 1 would completely restore the decline in funding levels caused by inflation, it "would offset none of the additional erosion caused by the increased number of children in poverty."

Given current budgetary constraints, the report warns, increases in funding for Chapter 1 "might reduce funding available for other services for children in poverty that some might consider more urgent."

Two-Parent Poverty

The report also qualifies the commonly held assumption that the increase in the number of households headed by females over the past decade is directly responsible for the increase in poverty among children during the same period.

"'Feminization of poverty' is a newly popular phrase, but, as applied to children, it describes a con-dition at least as old as official poverty data," the report says. "However, from 1978 to 1983, a period frequently marked by recessions and unemployment, the share of the nation's poor children in female-headed households decreased."

The report goes on to explain that the poverty rate among children in families headed by males increased at a faster rate because a larger share of the household income of such families is tied to the fluctuations of the economy than is the case in families headed by females.

"The number of officially poor children increased by 3.6 million during these years, and 2.6 million of them were in families with a man at home," the report said. "By 1983, there were almost as many poor children in male-present families as in female-headed families."

Nevertheless, the report does make a direct link between the increase in the number of female-headed households over the past quarter-century and the persistence of child poverty as a chronic social problem:

"If the proportion of children in female-headed families had not increased during the past 25 years, it is estimated that the number of poor children in 1983 might have been almost 3 million, or 22 percent lower than it actually was." (See related story on this page.)

In a related development last week, Representative Harold Ford, Democrat of Tennessee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, joined Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, in introducing a measure to combat child poverty.

The "family economic security act of 1985" would establish minimum benefit standards for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, require states to provide welfare benefits to two-parent families, and reduce tax liabilities for poor people.

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