Children of poverty
SEVEN years ago, when Cecilia Suarez fled El Salvador to join relatives in the United States, she expected to leave behind the fear that had shadowed her steps in that politically volatile country. But now she has fallen into a second predicament, all too common in her adopted land: She has become a single parent. With no job and limited English, she must depend on a $472 welfare check every month to support herself, her five-year-old son, and her nine-month-old daughter.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``It's very hard to be a single mother,'' Ms. Suarez says. ``Money is much problem. Even though the government helps with food for the children, sometimes I don't eat.''
Part of the difficulty, she explains, speaking alternately in English and Spanish, is the $300 she must pay for a single room -- no kitchen, no bath -- in an old hotel occupied by welfare recipients. ``The landlord charge too much -- $100 a person.''
``I'm very worried about my children growing up in that environment,'' Ms. Suarez continues, tears filling her dark eyes and spilling down her cheeks. ``I need space for my boy. He wants to play. He's growing up. I feel sometimes I can't go through one more day. I want something better for my children.''
As a former secretary with training in electronics, Suarez hopes eventually to find employment and become self-sufficient. But her current economic plight is all too typical. More than 1 child in 5 now lives in a family below the poverty line, which is defined as an income of $10,990 for a family of four. Forty percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, as do 43 percent of black children. Children make up the fastest-growing group of impoverished people in the country.
``Children are in the absolute worst status they have been in during my 30 years of monitoring child and family life in this country,'' says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. ``Every day more and more children are slipping into poverty, which immediately puts them at very high risk for optimal social development.''
That poverty has many causes. Some of it stems from a rising tide of immigrants, who now account for about 40 percent of population growth nationwide. A far greater proportion of childhood poverty can be traced to increases in the numbers of female-headed households. More than half of the 12 million children who live in families headed by women are living in poverty. Although a Stanford researcher reports that the feminization of poverty decreased between 1979 and 1984,a family headed by a woman is 4 times as likely to be poor as a family that includes a married couple or one headed by a man.
From California to New York, the sad consequence is the same. ``Children are poor mostly because their mothers are poor,'' says Theresa Funiciello, co-director of Social Agenda, an antipoverty group in New York. And the mothers become poor by having children.
Two profound sociological changes have contributed to this Catch-22 situation. One is the American divorce rate, now around 50 percent. Ten million children live with separated or divorced parents. By next year, that figure will have increased by 1 million. Formerly middle-class women moving toward the edge of poverty constitute a substantial part of a growing minority dubbed the ``new poor.'' Less than 15 percent of divorced and separated women receive alimony, and default rates are high on child-support payments.
As a result, one-third of divorced women with children move into poverty. In addition, pregnancies among unmarried women have reached record levels. Twenty-one percent of all babies in the US are now born out of wedlock.
As the proportion of children living in poverty has increased -- it is up by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years -- many children's rights supporters worry that children's priority on the national agenda is declining. They point out that federal funds for day-care assistance have been cut by 25 percent since 1980. And the proportion of poor children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits dropped between 1978 and 1984.