Although an improving economy helped some 1.8 million Americans rise above the poverty line in 1984, young mothers and children remain less affected by good economic news. Nearly one-fourth of all US children under six years of age still live in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau.
Though better conditions for some caused a marginal drop in 1984, there were still more than 5 million poor children last year. Among black children under six years old, the poverty rate rose in 1984 to 51.1 percent.
Closely linked to poverty among children are the 70.9 percent of single, female heads of households between 15 and 24 years old who live below the poverty line.
Many young, single mothers are poorly educated and have few job skills. Much of the effort to help them has come from welfare and government legislation. But new efforts are also being made to prevent teen-age pregnancy through educational and other programs.
Alana from Brooklyn is a mother of two in her early 20s. She didn't finish high school and hasn't worked since her first child was born when she was 16. She has a drug problem and shoplifts when her welfare money doesn't stretch to the end of the month.
Yet, Alana loves her son and daughter and is adamant that they attend school every day so that they can have ``good jobs'' when they grow up. She has entered a drug abuse program and would like to work. Her vision of working in an office does not jibe with the fact that Alana is functionally illiterate.
There is a growing recognition that much must be done to prevent young women like Alana from becoming mired in such poverty, and to help young women who have become mothers. This awareness comes from all quarters -- on Capitol Hill, in state houses, among community-based organizations, and in schools. It even comes from peers.
Arlene Wright from Coney Island in Brooklyn is a high school junior. She has seen the trap that young mothers get into in her neighborhood, and she is determined to help other young women avoid it.
Miss Wright and her friends meet regularly to talk about these issues, and have formed the Stop Teen-age Pregnancy (STP) Girls Softball Team. The team recently won a $200 grant from the Citizens Committee for New York City to buy athletic equipment.
``I tell [friends] if they got a dream, go ahead and fulfill it,'' says Miss Wright, who wants to go to college and become a nurse. ``Babies are very beautiful to have and to hug, but at the right time. . . . I see a lot of bad things in my neighborhood; babies not taken care of well, welfare giving mothers a pinch.''
In Washington, an omnibus ``children's survival bill'' has been introduced in the House and Senate and some of its proposals are going forward, says Mary Burdette of the Children's Defense Fund. These include funding for Head Start programs, improvements in medicaid for prenatal care, block grants to help pregnant teens through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Tax-reform proposals also hold good news for poor families, including single women. One estimate is that taxpayers reporting less than $10,000 income would have their 1987 tax bill cut by more than 77 percent, if the Reagan tax plan is adopted.
Many child advocates sees these trends as positive.
``People are beginning to see investing in children as more and more important,'' says one observer, who adds that it still is not a priority. ``The amelioration of poverty is necessary for all of us.''
``It takes a tremendous amount of intervention to help teen mothers,'' says Prudence Brown, a program officer on issues of urban poverty for the Ford Foundation. And that means from families, local service organizations, and state and federal government. She sees more states taking a real interest in teen pregnancy and prevention. And she also applauds an increased emphasis on including teen fathers in such programs.
But programs to help this hard-core poverty group have met with mixed success. One closely monitored program was Project Redirection, introduced by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation . The two-year study was conducted primarily in four US communities beginning in mid-1980. It was aimed at girls 17 years old and younger who were pregnant or had children, were receiving welfare, and didn't have a high-school degree. While the program, which encouraged youths to stay in school, get job
training, and avoid pregancy was operating, benefits were seen. Some 75 percent of the participants were in school, compared with 51 percent of the teens in a comparable control group that had no program. Almost half the participants had held a job, compared with one-third of the other group. There was a ``modest'' decline in subsequent pregnancies.
But a year after the program was finished, most of the gains had disappeared. And repeat pregnancies were up sharply. Programs like Project Redirection need to be continued for a lengthier duration, says Barbara B. Blum, president of And different age groups need different approaches, she says.
Emphasis on continuing education is important for the very young teens. Schools should offer more flexible help with day care and give classes on parenting, she says.
The focus for older teens is best put on employment, says Miss Blum. If these young mothers can see that another child will cut off opportunities, it may delay a second pregnancy. And, she notes, if these women are not caught at this point, they will likely remain in poverty for a much longer time.
``The single thing that emerges is the preeminent need to focus on prevention,'' says Blum. ``Is it realistic to expect a strong, supportive family reinforcing [traditional values] to be there for these kids?''
Blum believes that those who simply advocate chastity are denying the environment these teens face.
Child advocates point out that the first Reagan administration budget cuts hurt some welfare programs, programs such as AFDC and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children feeding program) have been protected in recent years. But they argue that social services such as child care are still needed.
``The bottom line is that we need all the additional resources focused and targeted on this group,'' says Blum.
Others agree. ``The demands on community-based organizations are increasing,'' says Thomas Rhodenbaugh, director of US programs for Save the Children. ``But there is no way private agencies can do it all. There is no way they can meet the major needs of the children.''