High Poverty Among Young Makes Schools' Job Harder
Fewer children living in poverty means more students ready to learn.
The good news is that the child-poverty rate in the United States has declined steadily since 1993, when it reached a 10-year high of nearly 23 percent. Other indicators of childhood well-being also have improved. A federal study released earlier this year reported that child mortality, teenage pregnancy, and juvenile violence were at their lowest rates in 20 years. Even so, nearly 19 percent of U.S. children—about 13.3 million—live in poverty.
Larry Aber, the executive director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, based at Columbia University, attributes the recent reductions in child poverty to three factors: a robust economy; a greater number of parents who are working, in part because of the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system; and the fact that when parents do work, even lower-wage jobs pay better because of an expansion in the federal earned-income tax credit.
Still, he argues, "there's a very important, unfinished agenda" if more children are to be lifted out of poverty. The first question is how to provide adequate support for families to complete the transition from welfare to work.
Since 1989, the number of children living in "working poor" families has grown dramatically. Those are families in which at least one parent works 50 or more weeks a year, but the household income is still below the poverty line, which stood at $16,600 for a family of four in 1998. That year, about 5.8 million children lived in such households, up from 4.3 million in 1989. In 1997, nearly two-thirds of poor children under age 6 lived in families with at least one employed parent.
"So one of the implications is that families are leaving the welfare rolls but not moving out of poverty," argues William P. O'Hare, the coordinator of the Kids Count Data Book, an annual compilation of indicators related to child well-being published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The other question, says Aber, "is what to do about the families that this era of welfare reform is leaving further behind."
A recent analysis from the Washington- based Brookings Institution, for example, suggested that while poverty rates overall have fallen, extreme poverty is becoming more concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, particularly in America? central cities. Kids Count found that in very high-poverty neighborhoods in central cities (in which more than 40 percent of households lived below the poverty line), 17 percent of households did not even have a telephone, and overwhelming majorities lacked the home computers and Internet access that middle-class children increasingly take for granted.
The face of child poverty also is changing. Today, black and Latino children are far more likely to live in poverty than non-Hispanic white children.
And by 2015, African-American and Latino youngsters are projected to make up 60 percent of the children in low-income families, up from 47 percent in 1990, according to a recent report by the New York City-based College Board. The same study found that while one in five children raised in poor families had immigrant parents in 1990, one third of children raised in poor families are projected to have immigrant parents in 2015.
But poverty is not just an urban or minority phenomenon. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, of the 5.2 million children under age 6 living in poverty in 1997, 60 percent lived outside urban areas, including 37 percent in the suburbs and 23 percent in rural communities. Moreover, the percentage of young children living in poverty is growing much faster in the suburbs than in either urban or rural communities.
Poverty Highest Among Young
In general, three factors deal a crushing blow to a family's economic prospects: having a single parent, low education levels, and part-time or no employment.
In today's increasingly demanding marketplace, even having a high school diploma is no hedge against poverty. Between 1975-79 and 1993-97, the poverty rate among young children whose better-educated parent had a high school diploma increased by 77 percent, while the poverty rate among those whose better-educated parent had at least some college increased by 78 percent, according to the National Center on Children in Poverty.
"The fact that poverty rates have increased so sharply among children of non-college graduates ought to be particularly disturbing in a society where 70 percent of young children have parents without a college degree," says Neil Bennett, the center's director of demographic research.
Today, the poverty rate for young children remains far higher than for any other age group. Research has found that extreme poverty, especially in early childhood, is associated with risk factors that can threaten early brain development, including malnutrition, exposure to toxins and violence, maternal depression, and very low-quality child care.
In addition, research has found that concentrated poverty in schools is associated with lower achievement for both poor and nonpoor students who attend such schools. Teachers in high- poverty secondary schools, whether urban or rural, tend to be the least- prepared and the most likely to lack even a minor in the subjects they teach. Such schools also tend to have a larger share of new, inexperienced teachers.
"I think the huge way poverty affects kids that is of most concern to educators is putting a glass ceiling on their readiness to learn in school," Aber of the child-poverty center says.
"It is somewhat surprising to me that the education community isn? more rabid about child poverty," he says, "because it so influences the raw materials that their industry gets to work with."
— Lynn Olson
Vol. 20, Issue 4, Pages 40-41