The heightened risk for disability embedded in the conditions of poverty are common themes in the national dialogue on child welfare (Center for Vulnerable Populations, 1992; Pianta, 1990; Sherman, 1994). Though familiar concerns and the object of considerable study over the years, the issue of poverty retains its urgency well into the third decade of mandated educational services. In the 19th Annual Report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), childhood poverty was cited as one of the five central challenges to educational service delivery (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 1997).
The underlying dynamics of poverty are changing. A troubling trend of recent decades is the growing disparity in the distribution of wealth in the United States. The number of Americans living below the poverty level has steadily increased over the past 3 decades--from 24.2 million in 1969 to 35.6 million in 1997 (Dalaker & Naifeh, 1998). Despite a plateau in the overall proportion of Americans living in poverty, childhood poverty rates increased. Nearly 16% of all American families with children lived in poverty in 1997, up from 10.8% in 1973. Poverty increasingly is a phenomenon of children--the most vulnerable segment of the population--with nearly 4 in 10 African-American and Hispanic children living below the poverty threshold and the majority of these in female-headed single-parent households (Dalaker & Naifeh).
According to the Report to Congress (DOE, 1997) increased childhood poverty has implications for special education: "As poverty among children has increased in the United States, the number of children with disabilities and receiving special education has also increased" (p. i-20). Though the evidence is indirect at best, the assumption is not unreasonable. The covariation of poverty and disability is well established. The annual report cites 1988 data linking increased likelihood for learning difficulties and rates of participation in special education to poverty (LaPlante & Carlson, 1996; Sherman, 1994). Analyses based on the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) has unambiguously illustrated the heightened exposure of Americans with a disability to conditions of poverty--over 42% versus 13% in the general population in 1995, a maldistribution largely unchanged over the years in the SIPP series (McNeil, 1997), and in other studies (International Center for the Disabled, 1986; National Organization on Disability, 1998).
Yet our perspective on education systems and the population of children with disability tends to be predicated, explicitly or not, on the assumption of static populations. The number of children aged 3-21 years served by specialized school programs grew from 3.7 million in 1976-77 (under both EHA-B and ECIA; DOE, 1987) to a total of 5.62 million under the IDEA, Part B State Grants Program in 1996 (DOE, 1997). Growth has been characterized in terms of expanding fiscal commitments (e.g., Rothstein, 1997) or increased efficacy of outreach (e.g., Bowe, 1995). An implicit assumption is that services are measured against a relatively constant population.
Recent perspectives on the epidemiology of disability emphasize population change. In Baumeister's New Morbidity model (Baumeister, Kupstas, & Woodley-Zanthos, 1993), the conditions of risk for mental retardation were viewed as dynamic--deeply influenced by national health and social policy. In an extension of Baumeister's model, Seelman and Sweeney (1995) proposed a "new universe" of disability hypothesis, suggesting significant change in the population of Americans with a disability as a consequence of changing etiologies and patterns of risks. In their analysis, fundamental transformations in the nation's social landscape--in the distribution of wealth, the character of poverty, and cultural shifts--can alter the form and magnitude of disability risk. …