Introduction

The United States faces a social problem of major proportions: child poverty. In 2002 approximately 12 million, or one in six children in the United States, lived in poverty (Bureau of the Census, 2003; U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2002). Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States has both a high percentage of children in poverty and a large disparity between incomes of the rich and poor. The poorest U.S. children are very poor indeed, and the richest are very affluent (Rainwater & Smeeding, 1996).

Child poverty is not new. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, introducing Head Start, Medicaid, federal aid to education for low-income students, job training programs, and many other programs to address the barriers faced by low-income children and adults. By the end of the 1960s, the poverty rate for children was reduced from 27% to 14%, but it has fluctuated since that time, rising to 23% in 1993, then dropping to 16% in 2002 (Bureau of the Census, 2003). Although the 1995-2001 decrease was especially large for African American and Hispanic children, both groups continue to be disproportionately represented among the poor (Bureau of the Census, 2003).

Most analysts attribute these fluctuations to three major causes (Huston, 1991). First, economic conditions that affect wages and the availability of jobs influence the average incomes of families at the low end of the income distribution. During the 1980s and 1990s, increasing numbers of families with poverty-level incomes were "working poor"; that is, one or both parents worked but did not earn a "living wage" (Bernstein, 2003) in the jobs that were available to them. Nevertheless, their opportunities for earnings rose and fell with rates of unemployment and job availability.

Second, during the 1970s and 1980s, increasing numbers of children lived with single mothers, and poverty in single-mother families is much more prevalent than in two-parent families. African American and Hispanic families are more likely than Anglo families to be headed by single mothers; the social disadvantage suffered by these ethnic groups adds to their likelihood of being poor.

Third, public policies for families in poverty changed. From the 1970s on, welfare or cash assistance to poverty-level families was increasingly under attack and payments declined in value. This trend culminated in the 1996 welfare reform legislation (entitled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act or PRWORA) that imposed work requirements and time limits on cash assistance. At the same time, the maximum payment under the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a federal program providing cash benefits for low-income working adults, more than doubled from 1993 to 2000. The end result was an increase in support for low-income people who were employed, but a decrease in cash assistance for other low-income parents. As employment opportunities declined in the early 2000s, this combination led to increases in poverty for families of children.

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The Polarity Path

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