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Study Charts Dramatic Rise in Suburban Child Poverty

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Child poverty is increasing dramatically in the suburbs, and, if the trend continues, schools and children's agencies will face "overwhelming" demands to provide social, health, and other services, a new report predicts.

The study, based on an analysis of Census Bureau data from 1959 to 1992 by the Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University, showed that the rate of child poverty increased by 49 percent in the past two decades, bringing the number of poor children in the United States to about 14 million.

The rate increased by 56 percent in inner-city areas and 36 percent in rural areas. But the largest rate of growth was in suburban child poverty, which rose by 76 percent between 1973 and 1992.

"Researchers aren't always startled when they get information back," said J. Larry Brown, the director of the Tufts center and a co-author of the report. But the results defy the stereotype of suburbs as "a world of prosperity and promise where people typically have been protected from threats such as child poverty," he said.

The report says 14 percent of suburban, 32 percent of inner-city, and 22 percent of rural children lived in poverty in 1992. But if current trends continue, it warns, one in five children in the suburbs will be poor by 2010, and there will be 6.25 million more poor children over all--a total of 20 million--by 2010.

"If this two-decade trend continues, demands on major front-line services for high-risk children, such as health, education, and social services, simply will be overwhelming," Mr. Brown said.

"Poverty may be the single most important factor in producing outcomes we fear most for our young," says the report, which cites the correlation between poverty and poor health, drug abuse, and school failure. The diminished capacities of poor families are alsojeopardizing U.S. economic competitiveness, the report warns.

Harder Every Year

"I don't think this report is a surprise in any way to teachers in the suburbs," said Keith Geiger, the president of the National Education Association. In the past five to 10 years, he said, the increased incidence in suburban crime, drug abuse, and other problems once associated with high-poverty areas "have made all of us, including those of us who live in the suburbs, more aware of the crucial need to deal with the problems of children, no matter where they live," he said.

David Rorick, a spokesman for the Arlington County, Va., schools, said applications for free and reduced-price lunches there increased from 5,188 three years ago to 6,400 last year, faster than the rate of growth in enrollment.

Nancy King, the principal of Oakridge Elementary School in South Arlington, said her school has added a breakfast program in recent years to respond to the increased need. Ms. King, who has been the principal at Oakridge for seven years and worked in the school system for 25, says that the increasingly diverse population of the schools is a plus but that it has been demanding serving more children who do not come from literate homes.

"The challenge increases every year in trying to meet these children's needs," she said.

The report urges a combination of social and economic policies to help families stay out of poverty and concludes that "the well-being of children must become part of all policy debate, whether it is about health care, food assistance, or welfare reform."

Mr. Geiger said more social-service and extended-day programs offered in schools--but staffed by outside agencies--would help bridge the gap, but he stressed that better health care and a more-equitable job market are critical.

Copies of the report, "Two Americas: Comparisons of U.S. Child Poverty in Rural, Inner City, and Suburban Areas," are available for $6 each from the Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, Tufts University, 11 Curtis Ave., Medford, Mass. 02155.

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