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C.D.F. Study Tracks Worsening Plight Of Young Children in Young Families

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WASHINGTON--A sharp drop in income and a rise in child poverty among young families since 1973 has turned the gap between the standard of living for younger and older families into a "chasm,'' according to a report released last week by the Children's Defense Fund.

The study showed that between 1973 and 1990, the median annual income of families with children headed by persons under age 30 fell by 32 percent, and their child-poverty rate doubled, from 20 percent to 40 percent. For older families, the median income dropped by 6 percent, and for families without children it rose by 11 percent over the same period.

"The implicit message to young Americans is frighteningly clear: bearing and raising and nurturing children may no longer be compatible with active pursuit of the American dream,'' said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the C.D.F.

The study, which analyzed unpublished data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was conducted by the C.D.F. in cooperation with Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.

While young families "always have faced an uphill struggle starting out in life,'' it noted, "today's young families have been so battered by economic and social changes that the hill is becoming impossible to climb.''

For example, it said, the median income for young families with children, which in 1973 was more than two-thirds that of older families with children, by 1990 had fallen to less than one-half that of older families.

By 1990, the report noted, the child-poverty rates for young black and Latino families and young families headed by single females and high-school dropouts had reached 68 percent, 51 percent, 77 percent, and 64 percent, respectively. Child-poverty rates also more than doubled, however, for young white families and those headed by married couples and by high-school graduates--"families we normally think of as being in some way shielded,'' said Clifford M. Johnson, director of the family-supports division of the C.D.F.

The report also noted that declining earnings and rising poverty among young families occurred in every region of the country, with three-fourths of the rise in the number of young families with children living in poverty taking place outside central cities.

Mr. Johnson noted that the data--which only cover the period through 1990--show heavy income losses had occurred before the start of the current recession. But between 1989 and 1990, young families' median income dropped by 9 percent, signaling that "the recession has made it worse,'' he said.

Demographics and Economics

The report attributed slightly more than half of the rise in poverty among young families with children to demographic factors, such as the increase in families headed by minorities and single women, groups traditionally likely to have lower incomes and higher poverty rates.

While it also cited increasing rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing, the report said young families as a group "have responded to a tightening economic vise by postponing childbearing and choosing to have fewer children.'' But such attempts to adapt their behavior "have been overwhelmed,'' it said, by social and economic changes.

The report linked nearly half the decline in the status of young families with children to such factors as the loss of manufacturing jobs, the growth in part-time and part-year jobs, the falling value of the minimum wage, and policy shifts making it "less likely that government help would lift young families out of poverty.''

Even though young adults today generally are better educated than those of a generation ago, noted Ms. Edelman, "young families now are less able to build a foundation for their own economic security, form stable families, provide adequate support for their children, or have hope and confidence in the future.''

As young families' plights worsen, the report noted, the scenario grows more bleak for children who spend critical "early developmental years'' in families with parents younger than 30.

The trends cited in the study, said James D. Weill, the C.D.F.'s general counsel, are likely to lead to more infant deaths, hunger, malnutrition, school absences, special-education placement, and teenage pregnancy.

The report also showed that a child in a family headed by a parent younger than 30 is:

Twice as likely to be poor as a "comparable child'' in 1973;

Almost three times more likely to have been born out of wedlock than a child two decades ago;

One-third less likely to be living in a home owned by his family than a child just one decade ago;

Three times more likely to live in a family that pays more than half of its income for rent than in 1974.

The report's principal recommendation is to enact a refundable children's tax credit along the lines proposed by the National Commission on Children. (See Education Week, July 31, 1991.)

Other recommendations include creating a child-support insurance system, enacting a national health plan, extending Medicaid coverage to every low-income child and pregnant woman, and fully funding Head Start.

While supporting changes in welfare policies that remove disincentives to work and marry, however, the report's authors said they do not favor proposals moving forward in such states as New Jersey and Wisconsin that would cap benefits to families that have additional children while on welfare.

That strategy, Mr. Weill predicted, will not change young adults' behavior, but will "affect how much food, clothing, and shelter a child is going to get.''

Copies of the report, "Vanishing Dreams: The Economic Plight of America's Young Families,'' are available for $6.50 each from the Children's Defense Fund, 122 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.

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