Nearly One-Quarter of Children Under Age 6 Live Below the Poverty Level, Study Finds

By Mark Walsh — April 25, 1990 3 min read

Nearly one-quarter of children under age 6 in the United States--a higher proportion than in 1969 or 1979--are living in families whose incomes fall below the federal poverty standard, according to a new report.

In 1987, according to the study, 23 percent of U.S. children under age 6--about 5 million children--were living at or below the poverty level. The federal poverty level in 1989 was $9,890 for a family of three and $12,675 for a family of four.

The 23 percent poverty rate was more than double the rate for adults ages 18 to 64, and higher than the 19 percent rate for children ages 6 to 17, the report states.

Although the poverty rate is declining among other age groups, the rate for children under 6 years of age has been stable throughout the 1980’s, according to the report from the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s school of public health.

The study, which was based on an analysis of Census Bureau data and other information, showed that the poverty rate for children under age 6 remained stable at about 17 percent throughout the 1970’s, then rose in the early 1980’s to a peak of 25 percent in 1983.

“Since 1983, despite generally improving economic conditions in the United States, the number and proportion of young children in poverty have decreased only slightly,” according to the report, “Five Million Children, a Statistical Profile of Our Poorest Young Citizens.”

The report lists several possible reasons for the continuing high rate of young children living in poverty: the growing number of single, teenage mothers; welfare benefits that are insufficient to lift families out of poverty; the inability of large numbers of young, two-parent families to rise above poverty while working in low-wage full-time jobs; and the lack of affordable day care for poor working parents.

Other findings of the study include the following:

  • Only 28 percent of poor young children lived in families that relied exclusively on public assistance.
  • Children in minority groups were much more likely to be poor. Forty-eight percent of young black children, 42 percent of young Hispanics, and 29 percent of other young minority children were in families living below the poverty level. For non-Hispanic white children, the rate was 13 percent.
  • Fifty-four percent of young children in poverty lived outside of urban areas, with 28 percent living in the suburbs and 26 percent residing in rural areas.
  • Fifty-three percent of poor young children came from families with at least one parent in the labor force.

Focusing on the Family

The report makes numerous recommendations for helping poor young children break out of the cycle of poverty, concluding that the “problem of child poverty cannot be solved without addressing the needs of poor families.”

“It is time to view the issues of children and families in poverty through a new lens,” said Judith E. Jones, director of the center, in a foreword to the report.

“Greater coordination of policies and programs is essential,” she added. “We need income support and high-quality child care. We need job training and better housing.”

The report calls for universal health-insurance coverage for young children, expansion of child-care subsidies for poor and low-income families, the expansion of Head Start and other preschool programs to serve all poor children, and new housing policies that would work to reduce the number of homeless children.

It also calls for guaranteed child support for single parents, a higher minimum wage, and income support to ensure that children of parents who work are not poor.

Living close to the poverty level can also be difficult for families, the report said, noting that in 1987 2.7 million children lived in families whose incomes were within 50 percent of the federal poverty level.

Copies of the report are available for $12.95 each from the National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, 154 Haven Ave., New York, N.Y. 10032. Checks should be made payable to the Trustees of Columbia University.

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 1990 edition of Education Week as Nearly One-Quarter of Children Under Age 6 Live Below the Poverty Level, Study Finds