What You Know That Ain't So

January 08, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

From Annapolis to Washington, new faces in new roles are proof that the old game of politics is entering a fresh round. Let's hope it brings fresh thinking, free from misleading stereotypes.

As the old saw goes, ''It's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you think you know that just ain't so.'' Recently, the Institute for Educational Leadership rounded up some intriguing data in an examination of some of the common assumptions about children and families in the United States.

Take the common stereotype about illegitimate births, Stereotype No. 1 in the report: Births to unmarried women have increased tremendously, but mostly because of women of color.

In fact, although births to unmarried women increased by 800,000 between 1980 and 1990, the majority -- 500,000 babies, or 62 percent -- were born to white women. Out-of-wedlock births to women of color also increased over those two decades, but at a much lower rate. Births to unwed mothers are a national problem, not limited to any racial or ethnic group.

Births to unmarried teen-aged girls are often singled out as particularly troublesome, since teen-agers are rarely able to support a child and, consequently, are prime candidates for long tenure on the welfare rolls. Since 1970, births to unwed teen-agers have increased, but the large increases in unwed older mothers have made births to teens a smaller percentage of unwed births, although still a worrisome one.

Stereotype No. 2: Child poverty is a problem in the inner city, not in the suburbs or in rural areas.

These statistics are of particular interest in Maryland, where it's common to assume that poverty and all its accompanying ills are synonymous with inner-city Baltimore.

It's true that cities still have the greatest share, with some 6.4 million urban children living in poverty in 1992. But nationally and in Maryland, rural areas have long harbored their share. In 1992, an estimated 3.6 million poor children lived in the countryside.

What will surprise many people -- and what policy makers especially need to know -- is that suburbs now outrank rural areas in the number of children living in poverty. Over the past two decades, the largest rate of increase in child poverty has come in the suburbs, so that by 1992, some 4.6 million poor children were living in these areas.

It's also worth noting that, while the rate of poverty is higher among minority families, 65 percent of all poor families are white. Many poor families have heads of households with a high school diploma. And, contrary to a common stereotype about the poor, 40 percent of all poor people age 16 and older are working.

Stereotype No. 3: The two-parent family is a thing of the past. Few children, in the U.S. live with both parents.

Although there has been dramatic growth in the number of single-parent households, in 1992 some 71 percent of all children in the U.S. lived with two parents. Even so, there are dramatic differences among racial and ethnic groups. In 1992, only 36 percent of African-American children were living with two parents, down from almost 60 percent in 1970.

Stereotype No 4: The majority of children whose mothers receive welfare live with many siblings, and their mothers deliberately have more babies to get more welfare money.

In fact, the average size of families on welfare in 1992 was 2.9, down from 4.0 in 1970. Studies have found no correlation between the level of welfare benefits and the rise in the prevalence of families headed by women.

And Stereotype No. 5: The U.S. is becoming more diverse. Most of the babies born today have parents of different races.

While it is true that this country is becoming more diversemixed-race babies aren't a major factor. In 1991, mixed-race babies made up only 3 percent of all births.

Stereotypes aside, the most pertinent news about American children may be their sheer numbers -- or lack of them. While the nation's population increased by almost 10 percent in the past decade, the number of children actually dropped slightly, from 63.8 million to 63.6 million. Coupled with higher growth among adults, that decrease meant that children now constitute a smaller share of the population -- 26 percent in 1990, down from 28 percent in 1980.

Why does this matter? Because children grow up and become the workers who fuel the economy. As the Institute for Educational Leadership says, we no longer have the luxury of taking care of only the ''best and brightest'' and neglecting the rest. Come the next century, we'll need the bodies, minds and spirits of every child.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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