Western standards, U.S. poor don't fare well

September 19, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- America has more poverty and is less able to cope with it than any of the major industrialized democracies of the Western world, according to a two-year international study released yesterday.

Compared with Canada and six Western European nations, the study found, poverty in the United States is more widespread and more severe; poor families here stay poor longer; and government programs of assistance in this country are the least able to lift families with children out of poverty.

These were among the findings of a study sponsored by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based research organization primarily concerned with issues affecting black Americans.

The United States, the study said, "stands in ignominious isolation" among other leading Western industrialized countries -- Canada, Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Sweden -- with the highest incidence of poverty among "the non-elderly" (households in which the head is 20 to 55 years old) and the widest distribution of poverty across all age and family groups.

"It is also the country in which the poor experience the longest spells of poverty, and the only Western democracy that has failed to give a significant proportion of its poor a measure of income security," the report said.

The study defined poverty as an annual household income of 50 percent or less of a nation's adjusted median income. In the United States, that amounts to about $15,000 a year for a family of four, a member of the research team said. The government's official poverty line is $13,360 a year for a family of four.

Although the United States experienced more steady growth and lower unemployment than did most of Europe in the 1980s, the study found, the U.S. poverty rate was double that of every continental European country by mid-decade.

"In our country, this report paints a picture of a government that is failing more and more of its people," said Eddie N. Williams, president of the center.

"This cannot be a reassuring prospect for other nations heeding our call to a democratic form of government."

Katherine McFate, the center's senior research associate and coordinator of the research project, said that the study "destroys many popular stereotypes about the American poor."

Compared with Europeans, she said, the U.S. poor are more likely to be working; fewer rely on welfare for long periods; and fewer are heavily dependent on government support.

Among the report's findings were these:

* The poverty rate among non-elderly households increased in most countries in the 1980s, but in the United States the rate was higher at the outset and rose further than in any of the other countries studied -- from 15.6 percent in 1979 to 18.1 percent in 1986.

* Poor families in the United States stayed poor longer than the poor in other countries. In the Netherlands, nearly 45 percent of poor families climbed out of poverty within a year; in France and West Germany, 25 percent. But in the United States, only 12.5 percent moved out of poverty after a year.

* In the United States, fewer than 5 percent of poor single-parent families with children were lifted out of poverty in the 1980s by government tax and welfare-assistance programs, compared with 75 percent or more in Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden; about 50 percent in France; a third in West Germany; and nearly 20 percent in Canada.

"Government policies can and do make a difference," Ms. McFate said.

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