Political Fallout Continues from Poverty Statistics Social Trends Fire Up Ideology-Based Battles over Welfare Policy. JOBS

By Amy Kaslow, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 8, 1992 | Go to article overview

Political Fallout Continues from Poverty Statistics Social Trends Fire Up Ideology-Based Battles over Welfare Policy. JOBS


Amy Kaslow, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE Bush administration, battered by a steady flow of bad economic news, confronted more disappointing statistics last week.

Recession and job losses, for example, last year pushed 2 million more people into poverty and worsened the prospects for those already there. In 1991, 35.7 million Americans fell below the poverty line of $13,924 for a family of four, or $6,932 for individuals, the Census Bureau reported.

Americans also earned less: Their median household income fell last year for the second year in a row, dropping in constant dollars 3.5 percent to $30,126.

Quickly analyzed by economists and political pundits, the findings became instant ammunition in this year's presidential campaign. Democratic presidential nominee Gov. Bill Clinton immediately blamed the Republicans for failed economic policies, saying that the poverty numbers, the highest since the 1960s, cast a shadow over President Bush's economic stewardship and the past 12 years of Republican administrations.

The White House has pointed to its efforts to help blunt the impact of the United States economic downturn on the poor by supporting more money for Head Start and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). GOP defenders say that the steady rise in poverty reflects the failure of the Democrats' Great Society and War on Poverty programs of the 1960s, which began what they call the destructive welfare cycle.

Urban Institute economist Isabel Sawhill says that the politicization of poverty numbers misses important trends that increase the number of American poor and prolong their suffering.

First, she addresses the "devastating demographics among blacks" that are partly the cause and partly the result of poverty. While blacks do not constitute the majority of the poor, they are among the hardest hit. A third of all blacks are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau report. The real median income level of female-headed black families (with no husband present) dropped 9.7 percent in 1991.

"The big story among blacks is the growth of female-headed families," Ms. Sawhill says. "In the 1970s, everyone was getting divorced. Today, they aren't getting married anymore." The collapse of marriage as an institution, she says, is "particularly striking in the black community." Forty-four percent of black men and women age 33 have never been married, and have children. The proportion of black children born out of wedlock is now 66 percent. Elderly make gains

Sawhill also cites generational gaps among the poor. "Poverty has dropped like a stone amongst the elderly and it has soared amongst children." Today, more than 22 percent of all children are poor. That's up from 15 percent in the early 1970s, she says. "We've done a better job of taking care of the elderly poor - the social security benefits and SSI {Supplemental Security Income} are much more generous than {programs helping the younger poor, such as} AFDC."

The second trend Sawhill identifies is the impact of the economy's restructuring. She notes the sharp decline in earnings among males with limited education, and the primary reason: the glut of unskilled labor caused by greater availability of cost-competitive imports in the US.

In an effort to reduce their costs and compete with overseas producers, US firms have drastically downsized during the past several years. Technology has increased the premium on skilled labor. And the country's growing service sector prefers better educated and female labor. Such developments have hurt minority males, Sawhill says.

Economists agree that much of the business restructuring is permanent and that most minimum-wage jobs offer insufficient benefits and carry a high tax burden. "The younger generation doesn't have good opportunities anymore," Sawhill says. …

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