‘Considerable Movement’ In and Out of Poverty Tracked

By Peter Schmidt — February 08, 1995 3 min read

The ranks of the nation’s poor include many people who have fallen into poverty for just a few months, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last week.

But some groups, such as single mothers and high school dropouts, take much longer to escape from poverty than others, the report says. And children make up a disproportionate share of the population that is poor on a long-term basis or at any given time.

One in five children lived in poverty in an average month in 1990, the bureau reports.

The analysis was based on an income survey that tracked a representative population sample over 32 months, from October of 1989 to August of 1992. It found “considerable movement in and out of poverty” and said the number of people who had weathered recent poverty spells was much larger than the population classified as poor in any given month.

In a separate analysis of census data issued last month, the National Center for Children in Poverty, based in New York City, reports that the nation’s population of poor young children grew substantially during the same period, even though most such children had at least one parent who was working at least part time.

Such studies show that “an enormous number of children are going to have at least a brush with poverty,” Arloc Sherman, a research analyst for the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund, said last week.

“Even short-term hunger and nutritional deficits can inflict lasting damage to their learning,” he said. “This is not a small problem affecting someone else’s kids.”

But Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, questioned the validity of the Census Bureau data.

He argued that it defines poverty too broadly, including in its counts the poor people who have returned to school to improve their economic situation and well-to-do business people who are having a bad year.

Single Mothers Singled Out

Few experts dispute the Census Bureau’s finding that single mothers are especially prone to fall into poverty and remain there.

According to the bureau’s report, families headed by single mothers stay poor longer than any other group, with median poverty spells of 6-1/2 months--compared with just under four months for two-parent families.

More than a third of people in families headed by single mothers were poor in an average month of 1990, and nearly 18 percent remained poor over an entire two-year period. By contrast, just 1.4 percent of two-parent families were poor for two straight years.

The National Center for Children in Poverty notes in its report that unmarried mothers with children under 6 are far less likely to be employed than their married counterparts, and that two-parent families benefit from having two potential income sources.

It also notes, however, that employment is not a sure safeguard against poverty; 18 percent of poor children under 6 had at least one parent with a full-time job, and fewer than a third lived with parents who relied exclusively on public assistance.

Mr. Sherman of the Children’s Defense Fund said the Census Bureau data show that the nation needs to provide more child care and new wage supplements, and to help all children get health insurance, if it is to help families escape poverty.

But Mr. Besharov said the data show that “the solution to long-term poverty is welfare reform.”

Copies of the Census Bureau report, “The Dynamics of Economic Well-Being: Poverty, 1990-1992,” are available from the bureau at (301) 457-4100.

Copies of the National Center for Children in Poverty’s report, “Young Children in Poverty: A Statistical Update,” are available for $5 each from the N.C.C.P., 154 Haven Ave., New York, N.Y. 10032.

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘Considerable Movement’ In and Out of Poverty Tracked