States Show Progress Against Child Poverty
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
Concerted anti-poverty efforts by some states have blended with an unprecedented economic tailwind to lead to the first marked improvements in the lives of poor children in two decades, a new state-by-state analysis of child poverty has found.
After skyrocketing in the 1980s, the percentage of children living below poverty fell in all but 15 states in the five years between 1993 and 1998, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) reports in a study released Thursday. The NCCP is an anti-poverty research group based at Columbia University.
While 1990s have been good for the nation's children, the NCCP study finds, the current economic boom has yet to allow poor families in most states to recover all the ground lost since 1979. The incidence of child poverty in the nation as a whole remains high. Nearly 19 percent of Americans under age 18 -- just under one in five -- is poor.
The NCCP study tracks changes in child poverty from 1979, when rates began a 15-year climb, to 1998, the latest year for which data are available. The findings expose stark contrasts among states that disparities in size and wealth can not explain.
In particular, New Jersey, Illinois, Arkansas and South Dakota all managed to reduce child poverty in the 1980s even as the rates in other states were skyrocketing, said Julian Palmer, spokesperson for the NCCP.
"States can make a difference in this," Palmer said. "It's not just a question of states being dragged along by the national economy. There are real differences."
New Jersey, for example, has seen its incidence of child poverty fall from 18.9 percent in 1979 to 12 percent in 1998. In contrast, New York's rate climbed from 18.9 percent in 1979 to 24.2 percent in 1998. Only Arizona, West Virginia, New Mexico and Louisiana have higher child poverty rates than New York.While Palmer says the economy alone does not explain the improvements some states have experienced, exact reasons for the discrepancies remain elusive.
New Jersey's positive results are likely due to a "convergence of factors," including state policies followed consistently over the course of several different administrations, said Ciro Scalera, director of the Association of Children of New Jersey.
"We are consistently one of the top spending states on aid to education," Scalera said, noting that the more degrees parents have the less likely their children are to grow up poor.
Scalera also cites New Jersey's "fairly consistent" approach to welfare reform since 1987 -- an approach he says that has successfully moved many parents into jobs.
Those and other factors have combined with a diversified economy that has bounced back well after the recessions of the early 80s and 90s, Scalera said.
In the 15 years between 1979 and 1993, millions of American children became poor, as the poverty rate grew from 16.2 percent to a historic peak of 22.5 percent. Despite improvements in many states since 1993, 17, clustered mostly in the south and west, still have child poverty rates above 20 percent.
Fifteen states have seen child poverty continue to climb during the current boom. North Dakota's child poverty rate has exploded since 1993, from 13.5 percent to 20.6 percent. Georgia has seen poverty among those under 18 climb 29.4 percent. Oregon's has shot up 25 percent.
The other states bucking the national trend are: Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
The national poverty level today is $17,050 for a family of four and $14,150 for a family of three.