By Marian Wright Edelman
For the first time in eight years the number of American children living below the poverty line has increased, according to data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.
While the increase is slight, from 11.6 million children in 2000 to 11.7 million in 2001, the total numbers are still huge. The number of poor children living in extreme poverty has increased even more from 4.8 million in 2000 to 5.1 million in 2001.
"This increase in child poverty comes only days before major federal child care and welfare-to-work programs are due to expire," said Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Noting that almost 75 percent of poor children live in working families, Edelman said,
"Congress and the President must act quickly to help these children by further increasing funding for child care and improving job supports for struggling families."
CDF said the data shows that a growing number of poor children live in families with unstable jobs. Among children with family incomes below the federal poverty line (up to $14,128 a year for a three-person family), the number living with a full-time, year-round worker dropped by 95,000 in 2001. The number living with a part-time or part-year worker rose by 75,000.
There was some good news. The data reveals a decrease in the percentages of Black and Hispanic poor children (dropping to 30.2 percent and 28.0 percent, respectively). But this was offset by an increase in the percentage of children living in extreme poverty. In 2001, 44 percent of poor children lived in families with incomes below one-half of the poverty line ($7,064 for a family of three), up from 41 percent the year before. The entire increase in the number of children in extreme poverty occurred among female-headed families.
CDF said it was concerned that the loss of cash assistance due to recent changes in the welfare system was leaving some of the nation's most vulnerable children unprotected from extreme poverty. CDF explained that the proportion of extremely poor children who received means-tested cash assistance plummeted in the wake of the welfare law signed in 1996from 56 percent in 1995 to 36 percent in 2000 and just 29 percent in 2001.
"There is plenty of money to help poor children and families weather the economy. It's just all going to the wrong places," said Edelman. "The half-a-trillion dollars in tax cuts slated to go to the richest one percent of taxpayers is the biggest obstacle to helping poor children."
CDF warned that the economic and policy outlook for poor children could be even worse in 2002, for at least four reasons: Cutbacks in child care help for working poor families by budget-strapped states make it even harder for working parents to keep their jobs and for laid-off parents to get new jobs. The majority of states made cuts in child care last year or are planning cuts, according to a recently released CDF survey of states. Unemployment insurance extensions enacted after last year's terrorist attacks are scheduled to expire on December 31, 2002.
More parents have lost jobs. The number of working parents fell by more than 1 million between the first six months of 2001 and the same period in 2002.
Welfare-to-work rules designed in more prosperous times sometimes make it difficult for jobless parents to get help. For example, most states now emphasize job search and work requirements with few opportunities for public transitional jobs when regular employment is unavailable. Further, a growing number of working poor families are hitting new welfare time limits, and relatively few receive job training to help them compete for better jobs.
CDF urged Congress and the President to respond quickly to the economic and policy perils it said were fueling child poverty.
"The best welfare-to-work programs strive to end poverty by strongly supplementing the earnings of working poor families and providing adequate child care help," said Arloc Sherman, a poverty specialist at CDF. "Such programs have shown success in boosting parents' employment rates and improving children's school performance. Getting children out of poverty helps them succeed in life, and that helps everyone."
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional career. Under her leadership, the Washington-based CDF has become a strong national voice for children and families. The mission of the Children's Defense Fund is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life with the support of caring families and communities.
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