Divorce, Joblessness Primary Reasons for Child Poverty

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Parental unemployment and divorce are the most common reasons that children fall into poverty, a study of 7,000 families nationwide has concluded.

And although unemployment can most often be identified as the cause of child poverty, divorce is much more likely to result in long-term impoverishment, according to the study.

Because children are dependent on others for their economic security, their parents' marital and employment status determines whether they become poor and how long they remain poor, the study's authors noted.

Their research, which followed the families from 1969 to 1979, is the first to examine "major poverty-threatening events'' within a specific group of people over a long period of time, according to Richard Burkhauser, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University. He conducted the project, funded by the Sloan Foundation, with Greg Duncan, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center.

Other poverty-related studies, such as those conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, examine representative cross-sections of the population at one point in time, Mr. Burkhauser noted.

The survey identified the causes of poverty for 55 percent of the poor children studied. Divorce and unemployment were the dominant factors in about half of those cases.

The study also identified other factors that contributed to the poverty of children: the death of a parent, the birth of a sibling, the illness of a head of household, and a decrease in the number of hours a mother or other family members worked.

The study did not identify specific factors to explain how the remaining 45 percent of the children in the survey became impoverished, according to Mr. Duncan.

11-Year Survey

Over the 11-year period, the study found, 23 percent of the white children under age 5 lived in families in which the standard of living fell below the poverty line at least once, and 3 percent of them remained poor for at least six years.

Seventy-three percent of black children under age 5 were below the poverty line at least once during the 11-year period, and 31 percent lived below the poverty line for six or more years.

Divorce and separation lead to longer periods of poverty than unemployment, the study notes, because the effects "on the women and children involved often last for many years.'' Unemployment, on the other hand, tends to be of shorter duration.

And, because the children of divorced parents generally lived with their mothers, the living standards for these fatherless families declined, the study concluded, despite welfare, child-support, and alimony payments.

Conversely, according to the study, the living standards of the divorced fathers increased.

"In the year prior to divorce or separation, about 12 percent of the children and 7 percent of all of the women lived in families classified as poor,'' according to the report.

In the year following a family break-up, however, the proportions approximately doubled, to about 27 percent of the children and 13 percent of the women studied.

And after five years, the poverty rates for women who remained unmarried--about half--declined only slightly.

Escape From Poverty

Based on an analysis of the statistics, the study found, the best chance children have of escaping from poverty in a single-parent family is for the mother to marry or remarry.

The study found that mothers who work and who do not remarry remain poor because their income is inadequate and does not offset declines in alimony and child-support payments.

"The low earnings most divorced women can command in the labor market make remarriage and not career advancement the more reliable route to restored economic status,'' the report says.

Census Bureau data indicate that only about half of the divorced women with children heading households entered into child-support agreements in 1984, according to the study, and only half of those who were owed payments received the full amount. One-quarter of the divorced mothers to which child support was owed received no payments.

In conducting their research, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Burkhauser relied on data for 1969 to 1979 from the Panel of Income Dynamics, a data base supported by the National Science Foundation, and the Retirement History Study, a data base developed by the Social Security Administration.

Copies of the study, "Life Events, Public Policy, and the Economic Vulnerability of Children and the Elderly,'' are available by writing Greg Duncan, Room 3280 ISR, University of Michigan, P.O. Box 1248, Ann Arbor, Mich. 48106, or by calling (313) 763-5186.

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