Children & Families

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Working Poor: A recent study takes a look at a population that has received increased attention in recent years but that researchers and the public know little about: working poor families.

The report comes as states are striving to get welfare recipients into the job market. It shows how difficult it might be to move low-income families out of poverty. While having parents who work decreases a child's chances of living in poverty, the report says, it doesn't guarantee that the child won't remain poor.

Therefore, such families may need additional support to move above the poverty line, suggests the study, released late last month by Child Trends, a Washington-based research center.

Because no general description of "working poor" families exists, the researchers used the official definition of poverty--$16,036 for a family of four in 1996--and the weekly work requirements set by the 1996 federal welfare-reform law.

Children in families that don't meet the work standard are seven times more likely to be poor than children living in families that meet the standard, the study found.

The study shows that children whose parents meet the work standard--20 hours a week for a single parent and 35 hours a week for two parents--are less likely to become poor, and if they do, are more likely to be able to leave poverty.

Children in two-parent families are less likely to be in poverty than those who live with single mothers, the study says.

Richard F. Wertheimer, who wrote the report, suggests that one way to help children in working poor families break out of poverty is to encourage single parents to marry. Under current policies, however, benefits are often phased out as income increases, which gives single parents a disincentive to get married, he says.

The study also reveals several differences between working poor families and those that did not meet the work standard. For example, children with parents who work are more likely to have at least one parent who has completed high school, more likely to live in a family that owns a car, and more likely to be in preschool or child care that is paid for by the parents.

The comparisons suggest, according to the author, that once parents meet the work standard, they may have to pick up the costs of child care themselves.

To help working poor families rise above the poverty line, policymakers should "continue to explore the payoff from adult education" and provide ongoing child-care subsidies, the report says.

--Linda Jacobson [email protected]

Vol. 18, Issue 26, Page 8

Published in Print: March 10, 1999, as Children & Families
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