A recent Children's Defense Fund analysis found that the number of Black children living in extreme poverty is at its highest level in 23 years. In 2001, despite several years of a booming economy, nearly one million Black children lived in extreme poverty, meaning they lived in a family with an annual income of less than half the federal poverty level (in 2001, that meant disposable income below $7,064 for a family of three).
These numbers are a clear sign that as a country we must invest in children now instead of passing irresponsible tax breaks for the rich. But instead safety nets for the worst-off families are being eroded by public policies that cause fewer extremely poor children of all races to receive the cash and in-kind assistance that could help shield them from deep poverty.
The Bush Administration is now planning to dismantle Head Start, block grant Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, and slash and freeze crucial services designed to help these poorest children. It is shameful that one million Black children are left behind in extreme poverty. It is hard to be poor. It is harder to be an extremely poor Black child in America when our President who says we should Leave No Child Behind® is proposing massive new tax breaks for the richest Americans.
Other recent studies have shown overall poverty has declined among Black children, but failed to show the record-breaking increase in extreme poverty among these children. Supporters of tougher welfare-to-work requirements often note that annual Black child poverty figures reached their lowest point on record in 2001. They use this to suggest that the last round of welfare-to work requirements, enacted in 1996, didn't lead to any serious loss of income for affected children. But there is another side of the story for Black children.
The crisis of deepening poverty is central to the story of Black children in poverty in the wake of the 1996 welfare law: without it, the story is incomplete. That is because more than 8 in 10 Black children on AFDC were already poor in 1995, the year before the law was signed. This means any deterioration in the economic circumstances of most Black children on welfare can only be measured by looking at the deepening or lessening of the severity of poverty for these already-poor children - not by changes in official poverty rates.
To look more closely at the experience of Black children, the Children's Defense Fund conducted a computer analysis of data through 2001 from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, the source of official government poverty statistics. We found that not only is the number of extremely poor Black children at its highest level in the 23 years for which such data exist, but the percentage of Black children in extreme poverty is also near a record high (it reached a 23 year peak in 1992). The percentage remains slightly higher than it was in 1996 when the welfare law was signed, despite several years of economic boom in between.
CDF did additional studies to rule out some possible explanations for these trends, and found evidence that the trends in extreme poverty were not the result of potential pitfalls in the survey data such as failure to count income from live-in boyfriends or other household members, possible underreporting of welfare income, or the presence of wealthy respondents with very low annual incomes who live off of sizable assets. Even after accounting for these and other pitfalls, the number of extremely poor Black children remained significantly higher in 2001 than in 1996.
We also found the dwindling safety net for the worst-off families appears to have influenced the trends. Fewer and fewer otherwise-extremely-poor children of all races receive cash public assistance. A growing number have no assistance despite their extreme poverty. This is not just a crisis for Black children but for Brown and White children too. But public policy is not inevitable.
Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist, fervently condemned slavery in the 1840s as a "moral outrage" even when his cause seemed hopeless. A friend asked him after a speech, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" Phillips replied: "I am on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt." Child poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is unjust, immoral, and preventable. But the nearly twelve million American children who live in poverty-and the one million Black children growing up right now in families with annual incomes of $7,000 or less need fired-up adults who will stand up and say so. We are facing mountains of ice in our struggle today too, but fire is still more powerful.
Are you a torch for justice for children?
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission 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 and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
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