Education and Marital Status Key To Keeping Kids Out Of Poverty

 

The nation's new welfare program is a first step in improving the financial well-being of many of the nation's poor children, but it will fall well short of moving many of them out of poverty.

An analysis of the working poor financed by the Foundation for Child Development and released yesterday by the Washington research group, Child Trends, finds children whose parents work are seven times less likely to be poor than children in families whose parents are unemployed. It also finds that children of working married couples are five times less likely to be poor than the children of working parents who are single.

In the 1996 welfare law, Congress cited similar statistics to justify the new welfare program's emphasis on work and marriage.

But, the Child Trends analysis finds that improving work participation and marriage will not be enough.

"What we're saying is the job isn't done when you've got the parents off welfare and into work," said Richard Wertheimer, the study's author.

In its examination of the poverty among the children of the working poor, the report uses standards comparable to those of the 1996 federal welfare law. Wertheimer defined working parents as single parents who work 20 hours a week or married parents who - combined - worked 35 hours a week over the course of a year. The federal welfare law imposes similar work requirements on parents who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Wertheimer's study verifies the value of these requirements. Work reduces poverty and helps keep families from becoming poor. Of the children of parents who worked as required under the law, only nine percent lived below the federal poverty level -- $16,036 for a family of four in 1996. Of the children in families not meeting the standards, 63% were poor.

Marriage and work combined help reduce poverty even more successfully. The report found that only 5% of children of married parents who worked were poor. In households headed by single working parents, 24% were poor.

Marriage alone, however, does not appear to be a solution for unemployed single parents. In non-working families headed by married couples, the percentage of poor children jumps to 54%.

Still, Wertheimer found that in 1996, five million children lived in families that met the work standard but whose incomes remained below the federal poverty threshold.

Parents who increased their involvement in work to the standards of the law or above were successful in elevating their children above poverty only about half the time.

"We have a lot of parents who are playing by the rules, meeting the work standard, but their children are still poor," Wertheimer said.

In comparing the working poor to the non-working and to wealthier families, Wertheimer found key differences that he says current welfare reform programs do not adequately address. Non-working parents and parents who worked but were still poor were far less likely to have completed high school. In 94 percent of the working families above the poverty line, at least one parent had a high school diploma. In families below the poverty line, only 64 percent included one parent who had completed high school. In non-working poor families, almost half - 42 percent - had not completed high school.

The new federal welfare program stresses work at the expense of education. Most parents must now work first and finish high school second. "I think we have to watch that situation," Wertheimer said, "and consider as time passes whether we need to think about changing it."

Although the new welfare program increases the incentives for single parents to marry (for the first time, states are now allowed to offer welfare to two-parent families), Wertheimer said the working poor are still caught in a Catch-22. Working single parents who marry lose their qualifications for Medicaid and child care subsidies, aid which can be crucial for a parent trying to keep a job.

While the new welfare law is successful in moving parents into work, Wertheimer said, more will be needed to help them bring their children out of poverty.

 
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