clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

REPORT CHALLENGES STEREOTYPES OF POOR

The poor suddenly have their best chance in years of getting back on the political agenda.

What has changed is a recent report from the Children's Defense Fund that challenges persistent stereotypes about poor children.In 1989, the study found, only one in every 56 poor children was in the stereotypical black, inner-city, female-headed family on welfare where the unemployed mother had her first baby as a teenager.

"We knew the stereotypes were wrong, but we didn't know how wrong," said James Weill, an author of the report.

From now on, it will be far more difficult for anyone to dismiss poverty as a "black" or an urban problem that people bring on themselves. Most Americans were probably unaware that two in five poor children are white, or that more than half live in rural areas or suburbs, or that more than half come from families where someone works.

"The poor are us - white, black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American; urban, suburban, and rural; working and unemployed; teen parents and older parents; single parents and married-couple families," the report said.

It also presented new findings on the forces that contribute to child poverty and made recommendations for congressional action. It called for a new children's tax credit, tougher child support enforcement and increasing the minimum wage.

The report concluded on an upbeat note that with such actions child poverty can be eliminated by the year 2000.

"If America has the political will, we have the resources to eliminate child poverty."

But the cost? Most people assume the price tag of eradicating child poverty would be astronomical, but "in 1989, the incomes of every poor family with children could have been lifted to the federal poverty line for $28 billion," the report said, citing Census Bureau statistics.

Nobody's suggesting that $28 billion isn't a lot of money or that raising every poor family's income is the answer. But having a number to compare with other federal expenditures raises provocative questions about the nation's priorities.

We're spending, for example, more than $30 billion a year to bail out the S&Ls. The Pentagon gobbles up $26 billion in two years just in inflation adjustments. The richest 1 percent of all taxpayers received in 1990 some $39 billion in tax breaks approved by Congress and the president since 1979.

The $28 billion it would cost to raise all poor families' income to the poverty line is about one-half of 1 percent of the gross national product. The figure does "demonstrate that the problem is manageable, and not beyond our means to tackle and solve," the report said.

The new view of child poverty makes us rethink causes of the problem. Consider the familiar complaint that one reason families are poor is that they have too many children.

Contrary to that popular myth, poor people don't have lots of children, the report found. Almost two-thirds of all poor families with children have only one or two. And single women have slightly fewer children on average than married couples - not more.

Nor is the federal government a rich uncle when it comes to poor families. A fraction of all federal cash payments goes to poor families with children. Only one dollar of every 12 the federal government gives in cash payments goes to impoverished families with children.

For the advocates who want to broaden support for programs to help the poor children, there is a danger in all this. Shooting down old stereotypes makes us aware just how complex child poverty is. The problem seems more formidable, if that's possible, than before.