America's Truly Needy Children

June 08, 1991

When it comes to America's disadvantaged, stereotypes are deceiving. The latest shocking revelations come from a report by the Children's Defense Fund which found that one in five American children is poor. That's not just urban America crying out of the statistics, either.

In analyzing 1989 census reports, the fund found that the inner-city black child of a mother on welfare simply is not the typical poor child. Only one in 10 of this country's poor children is urban and black; the fastest-growing poverty problem is in the suburbs, where a fourth of all poor children live. Nearly half of the children in the 28 most impoverished counties are poor, and all of those counties are in rural areas.

A companion image is of the woman of child-bearing age having baby after baby, producing a family that will grow up inured to life on welfare. The truth is that people poor enough to have incomes below the $12,675 poverty line for a family of four try not to have many babies. The study found almost two-thirds of all poor families with children have only one or two.

Another truism, turned upside down by a look at the facts, holds that poor people would rather go on welfare than work. Examination of 1990 census reports on Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods shows up to 70 percent of the adult residents work every day, but earn so little they cannot pull their families out of poverty. The Children's Defense Fund report parallels this, noting almost two out of every three poor families included at least one worker.

Economic recovery, which holds hope for many Americans, is unlikely to lift the poorest families into better lifestyles. One big reason: the national economy increasingly produces jobs which require post-high-school education, but poor people lack the resources or time to pursue such education. Another is the removal of factories and office complexes, large sources of decent-paying jobs, from urban areas easily reached by mass transportation to suburban and exurban locations. The entry tickets for those jobs, proximity and mobility, are beyond what most poor families can afford.

Reports such as the Children's Defense Fund's make it plain that something more needs to be done for these families. Programs that recognize the human capital these needy children represent are critical, for the inexorable aging of the work force means such children will soon be vital members of the labor pool. Allowing them to grow up unready will be disastrous for the American economy and their own individual futures.

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