Effects of Poverty, Family Breakdown On Children Documented in 2 Studies

By Deborah L. Cohen — January 09, 1991 3 min read

Washington--The adverse effects of poverty and the dissolution of the two-parent family are taking their toll on substantial numbers of young children, according to two reports released here recently.

A report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that nearly half the nation’s black children live below the poverty line.

Using census data and comparing trends across regions, the study states that the deepening of poverty was most pronounced for black children living in the Northeast and Midwest, where the overall poverty rate increased between 1969 and 1984, as did the proportion of those classified as dependent on public aid.

While the overall poverty rate of black children in the South fell during the same period, the study “paints a deeply disturbing portrait of the risks and prospects confronting black American children,” said the center’s president, Eddie Williams.

Children under age 3 are most adversely affected, the study found.

“Not only is their poverty rate higher than for older children, it is also the fastest rising,” states the report, which notes that by 1984, more than half of black children under age 3 were poor.

The poverty rate among black children was highest for those younger than age 3 in families headed by women who had never married; their poverty rate increased from 76 percent in 1979 to 87 percent in 1984.

A National Center for Health Stat4istics survey conducted in 1988, meanwhile, cites “further evidence of the effect of family structure on the health and well-being of children.”

The study of 17,100 children under age 18 was headed by Nicholas Zill, executive director of Child Trends Inc., a research organization specializing in children’s issues.

According to the survey, one in five American children has a developmental, learning, or emotional problem, and one in four has experienced one of these disorders by the time of adolescence.

The report states that such conditions, which it dubbed the “new morbidity of childhood,” can erode family harmony, require costly services in schools and other institutions, and “often interfere with children’s academic success and peer relationships and put a strain on parental resources and equanimity.”

While delays in children’s development varied little across family type, the report found that children from single-parent homes or stepfamilies were “two to three times more likely to have had emotional or behavior problems” than those who had both biological parents at home. It cites a similar, though less marked, trend for those with learning disabilities.

“The alarmingly high prevalence of emotional and behavioral problems” among children and the “observed relationship between family disruption and youthful problem behavior reinforce public concerns about the increasing number of U.S. children who are being raised in something other than harmonious two-parent families,” the report states.

The report suggests that behavioral and learning problems are underreported--particulary by minority groups--and often go untreated. It also offers evidence that the increased incidence of such problems may be linked to such factors as low birthweight, environmental contamination, and the increase in babies born to crack-addicted mothers.

In the Joint Center’s study, economic factors were also said to play a significant role in worsening black children’s condition.

“The study revealed that the economic slippage experienced by all types of black families--whether headed by married couples, never-married women, or formerly-married women--played at least as great a role as family structure change in the worsening status of black children,” the report states.

Summaries of the study, “The Declining Economic Status of Black Children: Examining the Change,” are available free from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20004.

Copies of “Developmental, Learning, and Emotional Problems: Health of Our Nation’s Children, United States, 1988,” advance data series #190, are available free from the National Center for Health Statistics, Scientific and Technical Information Branch, 6525 Bellcrest Rd., Hyattsville, Md. 20782; telephone (301) 436-8500.