Who's up from poverty, and for how long?

The current turmoil in the United States has already created plenty of economic fallout. Increasing layoffs and a tumbling stock market are likely to push a growing number of people to their financial limits.

Still, Americans have fared well in recent years in the fight against poverty.

The poverty rate dropped to 11.3 percent in 2000, its lowest level since 1974, according to a Census Bureau report issued last week.

Median household income dipped last year to $42,148. But poverty has declined since 1993 across most ethnic and age groups, according to the report, which surveyed 50,000 households this spring.

The poverty rate of 22.1 percent for blacks, for example, set a record low.

The previous round of Census data, released earlier this year, provided a picture of a larger trend: For poor American families with children, the 1990s represented a great escape. They managed to move out of poverty almost twice as rapidly as families without children. Some groups, particularly single mothers, did especially well.

Consider single mothers with children under 18: Between 1989 and 2000, their poverty rate dropped a whopping 7 percentage points - to 35.2 percent. (The poverty rate is the percentage of the population in a given group whose income puts them below the poverty line.)

By contrast, single women without children saw their poverty rate fall by only 1.5 percentage points.

The trend proved consistent across family types. Single fathers with children under 18 saw their poverty rate fall 2.6 percentage points. The rate for their childless counterparts dipped only 1.4 percentage points.

Even married couples with children, who make up the bulk of all families with children in the US, saw their rate decline by 0.5 percentage points. Their childless counterparts managed only a 0.2 percentage point dip.

"The overall national picture is one of dramatic poverty declines," says Greg Duncan, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Research about children in deep poverty shows improvement, he adds. "I'm very encouraged by that result."

Of course, while families with children have narrowed the poverty gap between themselves and families without at-home children, they're still worse off. Last year, 6.4 percent of married couples with children under 18 fell below the poverty line; among married couples without children, the rate was much lower - 3.8 percent.

Rates diverge more sharply among other types of families. For single fathers with children, it stood at 16.9 percent; for those without children, only 6.5 percent. Among single mothers with children, 35.2 percent; those without, 8.6 percent.

These numbers don't tell the full story, experts caution. For one thing, the poverty line does not take into account extra expenses a single parent might have for transportation and child care when moving from the welfare rolls to a job.

"It's not a very realistic way of measuring poverty," says Marianne Hill, senior economist with the Center for Policy Research, a state government economic research unit in Jackson, Miss. "You have more single mothers working, so their income has gone up. But their needs have gone up as well."

While experts debate whether a poverty line adequately represents the needs of low-income households, one thing remains clear: The sustained boom of the 1990s played a key role in bolstering incomes and pushing a rising share of families above the poverty line.

But with the economy stalling, economists are asking: Can the poor can hold onto their gains?

"It's the $1 million question," says Rebecca Blank, dean of the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a former member of the Council of Economic Advisors. "What happens when the economy slows?"

The question will loom especially large next year, when Congress decides whether to continue funding the five-year-old welfare-reform program.

Another caveat: The 1989 data, collected for the 1990 census, involved millions of responses; the 2000 data involved a far smaller sample and thus requires estimates. Also, the bureau collected the 2000 data slightly differently, which, if anything, could understate the drop in poverty during the 1990s, says Edward Welniak, chief of the income branch for the Census Bureau in Suitland, Md.

Nevertheless, the figures look consistent, especially when broken down by state. They hint at the underlying role the economy has played in reducing poverty.

Mississippi and Minnesota - the states that saw the most dramatic rise in household median income during the 1990s - also registered some of the largest and most consistent drops in family poverty.

Mississippi had the biggest decline in poverty among families with children.

Connecticut and Alaska took the opposite route. They suffered the biggest drops in median household income of any states and saw overall family poverty rise. Of the 11 states whose median income declined during the decade, 10 saw their family poverty rates go up. Rhode Island suffered the steepest rise - 1.9 percentage points.

Since states have adopted a patchwork of welfare-reform policies, it's not clear which help most. Minnesota and Connecticut offer generous transition payments to push welfare families into jobs. The former dramatically cut poverty. The latter did not. With far fewer transition benefits, Idaho recorded the largest decline in the poverty rate of single-mother families with children.

Both the economy and welfare reform have reduced poverty (along with other subsidies, such as the earned-income tax credit), says Professor Blank. Which has had a bigger role? "Those two have interacted in such close ways, it's hard to disentangle them."

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