NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Good News About Child Poverty

October 1, 2003

The U.S. Census Bureau's annual poverty and income survey shows that the number of Americans living in poverty rose by 1.7 million in 2002 while household income declined by 1.1 percent. However, the focus on the increase in poverty obscures one of the great successes of welfare reform, according to Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Specifically, families headed by a single female are prospering relative to what they would have gotten had they stayed on welfare, despite the many predictions that the economic downturn would consign these people to economic oblivion.

  • From the beginning of the war on poverty in 1965 until roughly 1995, child poverty basically trended up, despite increasing spending on antipoverty programs from roughly $50 billion to roughly $350 billion.
  • This changed with the 1996 welfare reforms, which required many single mothers to work; as a result, the work effort of never married moms increased about 40 percent over about a four-year period in the late 1990s.
  • Many of these women, probably a majority, earned around $10,000 a year in income.
  • In addition, families with two children received $4,000 via the Earned Income Tax Credit and $2,000 in food stamps, for a family income of $16,000 -- which is much more than they received under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) plus food stamps, in any state.

As a result, the poverty level among single parent families quickly reached its lowest level ever and has basically stayed there. Black child poverty reached its lowest point ever. And even two years after a recession, we still had the second-lowest level ever.

Mothers at the bottom of the wage scale have been much less affected by unemployment at least through the end of 2002 than wealthier individuals and middle class mothers, says Haskins.

Source: "Coverage Of Census Bureau's Poverty Survey Overlooks "Revolution" In Economic Gains By Single Mothers," White House Bulletin, September 30, 2003; Ron Haskins, moderator, "Welfare Reform & Beyond Briefing: Poverty and Income in 2002," transcript, September 26, 2003.


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