Inordinate Share of Poverty Said To Rest on Children

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 09, 1991 4 min read
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WASHINGTON--Children are shouldering an inordinate share of the nation’s poverty, according to new data from the Census Bureau.

Bearing testimony to the effects of increased unemployment, lower wages, and an increase in single-parent families, a series of three reports released this month by the bureau chronicles a sharp rise in the nation’s poverty rate and a drop in household income last year.

The data are fore the March 1991 Current Population Survey, which involved some 60,000 households.

The centerpiece report, “Poverty in the United States: 1990,” showed that the number of persons living below the official government poverty level rose for the first time since the peak level of 1983--after the recessionary period of late 1981 and 1982--when 35.3 million people were living in poverty.

In 1990, according to the report, 33.6 million people were living below the poverty level, 2.1 million more than in 1989. The poverty rate rose from 12.8 percent to 13.5 percent.

At the same time, household median income, adjusted for inflation, fell by 1.7 percent, from $30,468 in 1989 to $29,943 in 1990.

The 20.6 percent poverty rate reported for children under age 18 in 1990--up from 19.6 percent in 1989--"remains higher than that for any other age group,” the Census Bureau noted.

The report showed that children under age 18 in 1990 accounted for 40 percent of the poor, while the elderly-who until the mid-1970’s had the highest poverty rates-made up about 11 percent of the poor population. (The average poverty threshold in 1990 for a family of four was $13,359, up from the 1989 threshold of $12,764.)

Calls for a Better ‘Safety Net’

Between 1989 and 1990, the poverty rate for married couples and for households headed by males with no spouse present did not change significantly.

But increasing numbers of families headed by females with no spouse present fell below the poverty level, accounting for 83.8 percent of the net increase in poor families between 1989 and 1990.

The report also showed that 28.6 percent of the poor in 1990"including 8.4 million children under 18 were reported as having no medical insurance in 1990.

The Children’s Defense Fund maintained in a statement that the sharp rise in poverty in 1990 shows “the effect of recession on children is getting worse.”

“One year undid all of the reduction in the number of poor children that occurred during the last five of the six years of the economic recovery in the 1980’s,” the group said, adding that, “if recent trends continue, a new recovery will not repair the damage.”

The C.D.F. called on the President and the Congress to assume leadership in developing a better “safety net” for families through such policies as refundable tax credits for children.

The data show “the country is long overdue for some kind of major initiative focused on the plight of children and families” to improve access to housing, jobs, health care, and other services, said Joyce Johnson, a spokesman for the Child Welfare League of America.

“The President keeps talking about economic recovery,” she said, “but, in the human-services field, we don’t see it.

‘The Numbers Are Tricky’

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that the figures show “the negative impact of a decline in the economy.” He said the “best anti-poverty program is a growing, expanding economy.”

But “the numbers are tricky,” he said, since they reflect a rise in poverty that occurred more than a year ago and may have been most pronounced for those who were hovering just above the poverty line.

He also argued that the data on children in poverty contain a “technical exaggeration” in assuming that each successive child will cost the same as the first one.

The Census Bureau also reported that: . Married-couple families have the lowest poverty rate: 5.7 percent. . While the black poverty rate, 31.9 percent, remained the highest of any racial or ethnic group, the rise in poverty between 1989 and 1990 was mainly among whites and Hispanics. . In terms of household income, people outside metropolitan areas fared better than those living within such an area, and the Northeast region as a whole was hardest hit. While median household incomes fell by 5 percent in the Northeast and 3.1 percent in the West, they remained stable in the South and Midwest. . Income disparities between men and women and between blacks and whites showed signs of leveling off, but those findings appeared more linked to decreases in the incomes of white men rather than to gains in the earnings of women or blacks.

Copies of “Poverty in the United States: 1990,” and two related reports--"Money Income of Households, Families, and Persons: 1990" and “Measuring the Effect of Benefits and Taxes on Income and Poverty: 1990"--are available from the Poverty and Wealth Statistics Branch, Housing and Household Economics Statistics Division, Room I-mall 408, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C. 20233.

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 1991 edition of Education Week as Inordinate Share of Poverty Said To Rest on Children

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