Problem of absent fathers missing from Bradley speech

Just 34 percent of poor children live in families headed by their married parents.

June 29, 1999|By Ronald Brownstein

WASHINGTON -- When Bill Bradley detailed his views on childhood poverty earlier this month in Los Angeles, two words were conspicuously missing from his speech: absent fathers.

Mr. Bradley came no closer to that subject than some fleeting references to the stresses confronting single parents. As a senator from New Jersey, Mr. Bradley had worked to toughen child-support collection from absent fathers, but in his speech, he casually dismissed those who believe that childhood poverty cannot be addressed without attacking the broader cultural problem of fragmenting families -- a much more explosive issue on the left.

"We cannot return to a remembered past, a past I'm not certain ever really existed," declared Mr. Bradley, Vice President Al Gore's sole competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination.

That's far too flip. Today, childhood poverty is at least as much a problem of values as of economics. That means any effort to reduce childhood poverty solely with the economic policies Mr. Bradley stressed is doomed to frustration. Without increasing the number of two-parent families, the United States is unlikely to make the progress it wants in reducing the number of children in poverty.

"Historically," says David Blankenhorn, president of the centrist Institute for American Values, "whether or not a child was poor depended on what her mother and father did for a living [and] whether they had a job. Increasingly, whether a child is poor or not depends on whether she has a father in her life."

Poverty link

Census Bureau numbers tell the story. Increasingly, childhood poverty is concentrated in families where the father (or far more rarely) the mother is absent. In 1997, the latest year for which census data are available, 62 percent of all children in poverty came from single-parent families.

Just 34 percent of poor children live in families headed by their two married parents. (The rest live in assorted other conditions, including foster care.) That's despite the fact that the number of married couples raising children is still more than double the number of single parents.

To some extent, this decade's rising economic tide has lifted all these boats. In his speech, Mr. Bradley charged that the number of children living in poverty hasn't decreased under President Clinton. But census figures show that the number of children in poverty declined from 15.3 million when Mr. Clinton took office to 14.1 million in 1997, a drop of 1.2 million. That reduced the share of children living in poverty from 22.3 percent to 19.9 percent.

Mr. Bradley's aides now admit that his charge in the speech was wrong but say the actual decline is "negligible." Clintonites counter that the decline in the children's poverty rate since 1993 is the largest sustained drop since the 1960s. But the biggest story in the numbers is that even a booming economy can't fully overcome the impact of family breakdown on children.

Since 1993, the poverty rate has fallen slightly faster among female-headed households than those with married couples. But even after that progress, a staggering 41 percent of single-parent families remain trapped in poverty (compared with 7.1 percent of married parents). A single white mother is still nearly five times as likely as a married black couple to be poor.

Precarious situation

That disparity defies easy solution. Most parents without partners make great efforts, but they are forced to stretch one set of resources over a job that demands two. That leaves many in an inherently tenuous situation, particularly economically.

Mr. Bradley was right to urge more support for all parents struggling to stay out of poverty. But Washington hasn't been as oblivious as he suggested.

With the 1993 expansion of the earned income tax credit (which cuts federal taxes for the working poor), the 1996 increase in the minimum wage, the new program of health insurance for children in low-income families and the $500-per-child tax credit approved in 1997, Mr. Clinton and Congress have already taken important steps to bolster families -- with one or two parents -- straining at the margin of the economy.

More can be done, such as raising the minimum wage again. But it will be difficult to root out childhood poverty solely with such economic support because the vast majority of parents who work already earn enough to lift their families out of poverty. For married couples with children, when either partner worked full time in 1997, just 2.8 percent were poor. Even nine of 10 single mothers who worked full time escaped poverty.

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