Report says number of children in working-poor families rising Figure increased by 30% between 1989 and 1994

June 03, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The children of the working poor form the fastest-growing segment of child poverty in the United States, according to a study released today by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The 7th annual Kids Count Data Book, a state-by-state survey of children's well-being, found that 5.6 million children -- more than one-third of all children living in poverty -- belong to working-poor families. That represents a 30 percent increase between 1989 and 1994.

"The image of child poverty is a little more complex than the one we tend to throw around of it being the result of the unmarried welfare mother," said Douglas W. Nelson, executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy dedicated to disadvantaged children.

The definition of a working-poor family, according to the report, is one in which at least one parent has worked 50 or more weeks during a year, yet failed to make a household income above the poverty line. The 1994 poverty standard for a family of three was $11,821.

The report found that only 14 percent of all children in working-poor families were born to teen-age mothers. Most were born to mothers more than 25 years old. And about half of the working-poor families were married, two-parent households in which at least one of the parents, usually the father, worked all year.

Maryland's plight

A separate report on Maryland that will be issued in the coming weeks shows a similar increase, according to officials of Advocates for Children & Youth, which is preparing the report.

"The plight of Maryland's children mirrors the challenges of children around the country," said Jan Schmidt, community outreach coordinator with Advocates for Children & Youth. "Children living in poverty has grown in Maryland to 15 percent and one-third of those children are living in families where one parent works year round."

That information underscores the fact that just getting a job for the head of a household is not a panacea to ending poverty.

"As we find jobs for people who may have low skills, [it is important] that we understand that we'll have to do a lot of education, we'll have to continue with medical assistance, transportation assistance, certainly with child care assistance," Schmidt said. "Because someone is working, it doesn't mean someone is not poor and Maryland is a perfect example of that."

In an attempt to account for the growing number of working-poor families, the report pointed to the globalization of markets and the advances in technology that have replaced the traditionally well-paying manufacturing jobs with low-wage service industry jobs.

Changing times

"I think it's just as simple as there was a time not long ago where the will to work and a manual dexterity and determination could lead you to a place in the economy -- a good, solid, blue-collar manual labor job -- that was productive enough to reward you with an above poverty-level income," said Nelson of the Casey Foundation.

As an example, he says that 30 years ago a youth with a high school education and a good attitude in a city like Dayton, Ohio, could get a job at a tire factory and within five years be fairly economically secure, able to buy a house and raise a family. "The same kid today ends up a social problem in that city," he said.

Possible solutions

The long-term solution is an overhaul of the educational system, Nelson said.

The educational system has always worked for college-bound youths, but there was always a second track for youths who did not intend to go to college. "That track doesn't work anymore," Nelson said. Our educational system has not changed much in 25 years but the demands of the economy have changed radically. There's a mismatch with young adults between what they know and what they need to know."

In the short term, Nelson says, working adults need access to health care and day care for their children. He noted that the children of the working poor are less likely to have health coverage than are the children of parents who receive welfare. And the average working-poor family that pays for its own child care spends more than one-fifth of its monthly income to cover those expenses.

The Casey foundation also favors retaining and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides low-income wage earners with an income tax credit that enlarges their net income. "I think it's a much more effective way to do something about low-income workers than a huge across-the-board increase in the minimum wage," Nelson said.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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