Nation's Poor Families Gain, But Troubles Remain, Study Finds
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
A vast survey of American families has found no evidence that the push to cut the public welfare rolls has brought increasing hardship to the nation's poor.
Instead, the study of 42,000 households released today (Oct. 24) has found that most low-income children and adults were better off financially in 1999 than in 1997, the year most states began to overhaul their welfare systems.
These economic gains, however, have yet to penetrate deeply into family life, the report found. There were few signs among those surveyed of better physical and emotional health.
Nor did the financial boost benefit everyone equally. While white families reported having more income, black families did not.
Many of its positive findings stem in part from a roaring economy, but the survey confirms that the new welfare system -- at least in the short term -- has not worsened poverty and homelessness as many of its opponents predicted.
"Neither the greatest fears nor the greatest hopes of dramatic social change due to devolution, welfare reform and the new SCHIP program (the Children's Health Insurance Program)... have been realized," the report says.
Drawn from information on more than 100,000 people, the survey is one of the largest projects in the nation attempting to gauge the fallout of recent congressional decisions to shift authority over social programs to the states. Today's report is the second in a series. Researchers conducted the first round of interviews in 1997.
Overall, Snapshots of America's Families II , as the study is called, captures a picture of struggle amidst plenty. Although many low-income families are bringing home more money, they are still coping with a wide range of financial, emotional and physical troubles.
"Many of the 75 million adults and children living in low-income families face tremendous obstacles," said Alan Weil of the Urban Institute.
Low-income adults were at least three times as likely as their wealthier counterparts to report health problems and difficulty paying for food and housing. Their children were twice as likely to suffer behavioral and emotional troubles and three times as likely to lack health insurance.Forty percent of the nation's children and 27 percent of adults live in low-income households, meaning their income was less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 1998, or $33,060 for a couple with two children. The survey did not include Americans over 65.
"In a way there's startling information here," said Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington. "Despite the tremendous prosperity we are in, you have families struggling to make ends meet well above the poverty line."
In 1996, the federal government freed the states to run their cash-assistance programs for the poor as they see fit. A year later, it began sending the states additional money to expand their health insurance programs for poor and low-income children.
In the few years since these laws were passed, the welfare rolls have fallen by 50 percent, the food stamp program has shrunk by 25 percent and the Children's Health Insurance Program has signed up two million kids.
Many of the survey's findings echo recent government reports. More low-income parents, particularly single mothers, have entered the workforce and fewer children are living in poverty. The SCHIP program is beginning to make a dent in the number of low-income children without health insurance
The Urban Institute/Child Trends study also found slightly more children living with two parents as opposed to one, a promising development not detected by government analysts. In the two years between the surveys, two-parent families grew by more than 1 percent, while the proportion of single-parent families fell. Children living with just one parent are more likely to be poor than children living with both parents.
The report found that fewer low-income families with children had concerns about buying enough food in 1999, although the number is still high. On average, 50 percent of those households reported concerns about having enough money for food.
While the report found children no better off psychologically, it did detect two positive trends for teenagers. Low-income parents reported slightly fewer behavioral and emotional problems in their teenagers and an increased interest in school.
Vast Differences Between States
In addition to looking at the national picture, researchers home in on 13 states where more than half the U.S. population lives. They are: Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
As in 1997, the study finds large differences in well-being across the states. Between 1997 and 1999, child poverty fell significantly in nine of the 13 states, but it varied widely, from 10 percent in Wisconsin and Minnesota to 28 percent in Mississippi.
Massachusetts had the smallest proportion of children without health insurance, 7 percent. Texas had the most, 37 percent.
"The most interesting thing is the enormous amount of differences state-to-state, which indicates how important states are in finding solutions to some of the problems," said Kala Ladenheim of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
State rankings overall did not change much from 1997, the report found. Families in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin continue to fare better than those in the rest of the nation. Families in Mississippi and in the largest states, California, Florida and Texas, still fare worse.
No state showed a significant deterioration in circumstances for poor families, but a few states did demonstrate notable improvements:
- In the two historically poorest states in the survey, Mississippi and Alabama, low-income residents, particularly adults, saw the biggest jumps in income. Both states had the steepest drops in poverty among adults, driven largely by increases in the percentage who were working.
- California and Mississippi made the greatest dents in poverty among children. In California, the child poverty rate fell by eight points, from 29 to 21 percent. Mississippi saw its rate drop 6 percent, although 28 percent of children there remain poor. All the states covered by the survey, with the exception of Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey and Texas, saw their child poverty rates fall significantly.
- Only Massachusetts, Alabama and Colorado managed to increase the percentage of low-income adults covered by health insurance. These three states also saw the largest increase in health coverage for children.
Thanks largely to its public insurance program, MassHealth, Massachusetts has cut its percentage of uninsured low-income adults from 30 percent in 1997 to 19 percent. In Texas, the survey found 47 percent of low-income adults and 37 percent of children lacked health insurance, the worst insurance rate in the survey.
"Texas missed some opportunities to work faster to remedy that (children's health insurance) situation," said Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund.
Nationally, one out of five low-income children are uninsured.