CLIMBING out of the poverty trap is not impossible. But to fight chronic poverty successfully, American cities must invest in their education and skill training programs, their children, and programs to bolster the family unit.
Such are some conclusions from studies conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation, which focus on six cities to dissect different slices of America's broad poverty problem.
``We think we have insufficient understanding about persistent poverty,'' says James Gibson, director of the equal opportunity program of the foundation. ``How can poverty grow among some groups even though we've had a sustained economy?''
Mr. Gibson says the aim is to build a new understanding of the dynamics of persistent poverty despite the nearly decade-long growth of the US economy.
Boston, the most recent addition to the series of research reports, last week reported significant declines in poverty among singles and single parents over the decade - gains attributed to the economic expansion. The Boston Foundation, a community support group that produced the report, conducted interviews in nearly 17,000 households.
But even with the booming Massachusetts ``miracle'' during the period of the study, poverty has persisted at high levels, the study found. While six out of 10 single parents in 1980 were poor, today it's 4 out of 10. Poverty among families has declined from about 1 in 4 in 1980 to 1 in 5 today. The study set its poverty benchmark at 125 percent of the federal income standard. For a family of four that's $14,500.
``Education is at the heart of the problem,'' says Hubert Jones, dean of the graduate school of social work at Boston University. ``Public education is supposed to be the one place for students to get the skills they need to be useful in the community.'' Yet 40 percent of the seniors in Boston public high schools cannot read at an eighth-grade level, according to a Boston School Department analysis obtained by the Boston Globe.
Children are among those most broadly affected. The survey found that more than one-third of children under six live in poor families - down from a staggering nearly 50 percent in 1980. And 73 percent of Boston's Hispanic children grow up in poverty.
The in-depth interviews challenge the notion that poor people do not want to work: 65 percent were either working or had worked in the last two years.
Another misconception is that poor people are always on welfare. Researchers found that 37 percent had not used welfare at all in the last five years.
Within the overall study, the six sites had free rein to examine specific problems in their areas. The other studies were in Cleveland; Denver; Oakland, Calif.; San Antonio; and Washington.
Washington researchers concluded that it is possible to make a modest reduction in numbers of people living in chronic poverty by reducing barriers that prevent people from gaining access to jobs - and helping people succeed once employed. Improving basic skills - reading and writing, and education quality are key.
``People who are already working but still poor need the opportunity to upgrade marketable skills on the job so they can earn their way out of poverty,'' says Carrie Thornhill, who directs a committee on reducing chronic poverty for the Greater Washington Research Center.
In San Antonio there are ``families who, despite working more than one job, can't possibly get above poverty wage level,'' says Kathleen Fletcher, project director of Partnership for Hope, the group that conducted the survey.
``Education is our best bet for getting people out of poverty,'' Dr. Fletcher says. ``We have a low educational level, and a low literacy rate. Preschool has been shown to be a good long-term investment.''
In Cleveland, ``Some areas have been hit with every conceivable social problem, from drugs, crime, teen pregnancy, while others have managed to retain more signs of social stability and social infrastructures,'' says Claudia Coulton, director of the Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change, at Case Western Reserve University. The successful areas, she notes, have benefited from ``families, leadership, institutions that can invest in the community, and organizations that have historically taken an interest in it.''
In Denver, which has been in a major recession for five years, the Denver Project on Persistent Poverty is entering into partnership with community leaders to identify problems and find solutions. They are also examining how elementary schools can forge stronger partnerships with the community and with parents, says Elaine Berman, director of the project at the Piton Foundation.