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2 Studies Indicate Youth May Face Bleaker Future Than Their Parents

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More indications that the economic future of today's children may be less promising than that of previous generations are contained in two recent reports that chart what one calls the increasingly "targeted" nature of poverty in America.

The reports--by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund--suggest that the country's general level of prosperity is not being reflected in two sectors of the population where the birth rate is atits highest: among young families and within minority groups.

Young families, the cdf report says, have suffered an "economic disaster" in recent years that is, by some comparative measures, greater than that of the Great Depression.

Adjusted for inflation, the median income for families headed by people 30 or younger--those in their prime child-bearing years--shrank by 26 percent between 1973 and 1986, according to the report.

That drop in earnings, it points out, is "virtually identical" to the 27 percent drop in per capita income that occurred during the Depression years of 1929 through 1933.

The 108-page study, "Vanishing Dreams: The Growing Economic Plight of America's Young Families," was published jointly by the c.d.f. and the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. It was released last week.

Among the report's chief conclusions, alluded to in its title, is that the drastically changing economic profile of families may make today's young people the first generation unable to achieve the "American Dream" of a better education and better living conditions than their parents'.

"The question is not whether the economic glass for America's families is half-empty or half-full," the report states. "Rather, older families have a glass that is mostly full; the glass younger families hold is mostly empty."

The report cites such shifts in the "economic landscape" as the need for increased education to obtain entry-level jobs, the decline of the manufacturing sector, the growth in part-time jobs, and the decline in the buying power of the federal minimum wage.

These factors, it says, represent some of the forces producing a "frightening cycle of plummeting earnings and family incomes."

Among the report's findings are the following:

The reduction in family income has meant a substantial increase in the percentage of children in young families who live in poverty--from 21 percent in 1973 to 35 percent in 1986.

One-third of all poor children are now in young families, according to the report.

The ability of young parents to better their family fortunes by completing their education has been diminishing.

Though the median income of families headed by high-school graduates fared better between 1973 and 1986 than that of families headed by high-school dropouts, "the high-school diploma has not shielded them from economic losses," the report says.

Its findings show that the median income of the families headed by high-school graduates actually dropped by 16 percent in the years studied, and that the poverty rate for such families more than doubled.

"Education still pays," the document states, "but a high-school diploma is no longer an adequate defense against poverty for young families."

"Home ownership is now beyond the reach of most young families," according to the report.

In 1973, it took slightly more than 20 percent of the median income of a young family to pay an 80-percent mortgage on a newly purchased home. But by 1986, the burden had more than doubled.

Black and Hispanic families have been particularly hard-hit by the changing economy. The median income for black heads of household has dropped by 50 percent since 1973; that of Hispanic heads of families has fallen by one-third.

Even the earnings of black college graduates who head young families declined by one-third during the years studied, the report says. And more than half the black high-school dropouts heading families "reported no earnings whatsoever in 1986."

The report by the U.S. Census Bureau, "Money, Income, and Poverty Status in the United States: 1987," confirms the stagnation in family8earning power among minorities.

It shows that while the median income of white families, adjusted for inflation, increased by 1.1 percent between 1986 and 1987, the median income of black and Hispanic families did not change.

The Census Bureau reported that the comparative median incomes of married couples among racial and ethnic groups were $35,300 for whites; $27,180 for blacks; and $24,680 for Hispanics.

It noted that the disparities were greater among female-headed families. Among such families, the median income for whites was $17,020; for Hispanics, it was $9,810, and for blacks, $9,710.

Because today's economic woes are "[f]ar more targeted" than those of the 1930's, the cdf report says, a greater effort is needed at the federal level to aid young families.

The report suggests that the nation adopt a "long-range investment strategy," beginning in 1989, that would include such education-related remedies as expanding the Head Start, Chapter 1, and Job Corps programs, mounting "comprehensive" programs to combat teen pregnancies, and creating a "network of community learning centers" to strengthen children's basic skills.

Such an undertaking would also include, it says, "a stronger bridge from school to work" for students who choose not to attend college and an increase in targeted federal grants to low-income students to reverse the decline in college enrollments among minorities.

The report also recommends the immediate passage of federal legislation to increase the minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.55 an hour by 1991 and the "act for better child care," a bill designed to encourage partnerships between states and the federal governments for day-care programs.

Copies of "Vanishing Dreams: The Growing Economic Plight of Amercia's Young Families" may be ordered for $7.95 each from the Children's Defense Fund, 122 C Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

Copies of "Money, Income, and Poverty Status in the United States: 1987" may be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

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