Drop in Child Poverty Lags Behind Decline in Welfare Rolls
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
WASHINGTON - American families are moving from welfare to work at unprecedented rates, but they are not making a commensurate jump from poverty to prosperity -- at least not at the same pace.
The National Center for Children in Poverty, a liberal advocacy group based at Columbia University, released a report Thursday which finds that many young children who were poor while on the welfare rolls were still poor after they left.
"Our research suggests that thus far welfare reform has done better at moving families off the rolls than it has at moving families out of poverty," said NCCP director Lawrence Aber in the group's press release.
At a briefing on Capitol Hill, Aber expanded his remarks. "Today, after an unprecedented period of economic growth in the U.S., one child in five lives in poverty."
"Our youngest kids are our poorest kids," he said. The National Center for Children in Poverty focuses on children under six, the single poorest age group in the nation.
Still, the NCCP reports some positive recent trends. Even though the young poor children who are leaving the welfare rolls are not escaping poverty, many more of them are living with a parent who works.
Furthermore, for all young children not just those leaving welfare the poverty rate is falling, albeit not as slowly as the NCCP would like.
In a related, more controversial finding, the NCCP also reports that eking out a livable wage is getting harder. A high school diploma is less likely to guarantee that a parent with young children will earn enough to escape poverty, the study says.
Aber also said that his statistics show "the face of child poverty is changing." Poverty among suburban and rural kids has not fallen as quickly as urban poverty. Black children have also benefited more than whites by the recent declines, although they are still three times more likely to be poor.
The NCCP report adds to what is now becoming a familiar picture of America's poor in the 'welfare-reform' era. Many of its findings reinforce the conclusions of similar studies over the past year, including follow-up surveys conducted by the states of adults who recently left welfare.
Since the states began experimenting with stricter welfare rules in the early 1990's a process accelerated by Congress in 1996, the public assistance rolls have dwindled faster than the poverty rate. In other words, the ranks of America's working poor are swelling.
The plethora of recent data is the result of the more pressing need to understand who uses public assistance and why, and what happens to families after they leave welfare.
Under the old system, adults and their children under 18 could collect welfare as long as they could prove they were eligible. Today families are limited to just 60 months of cash assistance over their entire lifetimes, regardless of need. (States may exempt 20 percent of their caseloads from this requirement.)
The states must now try to ensure adults become self-sufficient before they reach the 60-month limit. As a result, states and advocates for the poor are putting welfare recipients under increasing scrutiny.
So far, states have had tremendous success moving families off welfare and discouraging new applicants from coming on. Many states have also shown some success at moving more former recipients into jobs.
Recent surveys conducted by 19 states found between 44-71 percent of former welfare recipients were working when researchers talked to them.
Most former recipients say they remain impoverished. They are taking low-wage often temporary jobs which offer few benefits.
Still, while welfare caseloads have fallen 46 percent since 1993 and many former recipients are finding work, the poverty rate has not fallen nearly as fast. The Census Bureau reports the overall poverty rate in the U.S. declined from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 13.3 percent in 1997.
For young children, the difference is even starker.
According to NCCP, which analyzed census data, the percentage of children under six on welfare fell by more than half 53 percent between 1993 and 1997.
But the decline in the number of young children in families living below the federal poverty line $13,330 for a mother with two children in 1997 fell just 16 percent from 1993 to 1997, from 26.2 percent to 22 percent. The percentage of poor children under six more than doubled between 1978 and 1993.
While many of the young children who leave the public assistance rolls are still poor, more and more of them live with working parents.
According to the NCCP report, two out of three young children in poverty lived with a parent who worked in 1997, an increase of 20 percent since 1993.
To conservatives, that increase in work is the most important story so far from the overhaul of the nation's welfare policy.
In testimony before a House subcommittee in early June, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington argued that most of the families who have left welfare for work have more than replaced their lost welfare benefits. He cited an overall increase in income for all single-mother families of $19 billion between 1993 and 1997.
Conservatives also point out that the recent decline in child poverty contrasts with the argument made by many advocates for the poor during the welfare debate on Capitol Hill. Many predicted child poverty would rise as a direct result of the new policies.
The Importance of Education
One of the most debated provisions of the 1996 federal welfare act is the limitation the law places on education and training. It stipulates that states may not use federal funds to support recipients who are attending college unless they are also working.
According to the NCCP report, the poverty gap between the college-educated and those without a bachelor's degree is growing wider. More and more poor children live in households where the best-educated parent has a high school diploma or even some college.
"It used to be that a high school degree made it possible to find a job and lift your kids out of poverty," Aber said. "A high school degree or some college no longer protects kids."
Since 1977, the percentage of poor young children who live with a parent who had completed high school or had some college experience has increased 10 percentage points, from 47.7 percent in 1977 to 56.9 percent in 1997.
Young children whose parents attended college but did not graduate are five times as likely to be poor as the young children of college graduates. Those children whose parents have only high school diplomas are 10 times more likely to be poor.
In its analysis of who is most likely to live in poverty, the NCCP report echoes many others.
"The powerful combination of single motherhood, relatively low educational attainment, and less than full-time employment results in extremely high poverty rates," the study concludes.