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    What America Thinks
    How the Haves and Have-Nots Differ

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, February 1, 1999

    Like the rich, the poor are different from you and me – and an important new survey of 45,000 American families shows just how different. The poor – both children and adults – frequently go to bed hungry, find it difficult or impossible to get proper medical care, and report far more mental health problems than the rest of us.

    At the same time, the poll, conducted by the Urban Institute in partnership with Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research center, found comforting similarities between have and have-not families in America.

    "Family life for the 43 percent of children who live in low-income households shows consistently greater strain when compared to families in higher-income households," said Alan Weil, director of the Assessing the New Federalism Project, in a prepared statement released with the poll results. "Yet, fortunately, regardless of income, most parents read to their young children and participate in their communities. Children take part in extracurricular activities, are generally involved in school, and relatively few have significant behavioral problems."

    The survey confirms that family structure matters. Children living with a single parent are much more likely to be poor than those living with two parents. It also found that nearly half of all lower-income families reported "worrying about or having difficulty affording food, compared to one out of seven higher-income families," according to Urban Institute researchers.

    For this study, poor families were defined as those living below the federal poverty level. For a single parent with two children, the poverty level was $12,641. Overall, 43 percent of all children live in poverty, compared with 29 percent of all adults.

    Nearly three in 10 lower-income families reported being "unable to pay the mortgage, rent, or utility bills at some point in the prior year," the researchers wrote. "Among higher-income families, only one in 10 reported experiencing such hardship."

    Moreover, researchers found that living conditions vary dramatically by state. Wisconsin reported the lowest rate of food problems, largely because it has substantially lower poverty rates and high rates of employment. Families in Florida, Texas and Mississippi, on the other hand, reportedly significantly higher rates of food problems than the nation as a whole.

    "Compared to the nation, for example, California has lower employment rates among low-income parents, more children in families having difficulty affording food, and more children with no usual source of health care," the researchers said. "Texas has more parents with housing problems, more children in families having trouble affording food, more residents in poor health, and more children and adults with no health insurance."

    "These findings indicate the need for policymakers to use a variety of measures when assessing the relative economic status of families living in different states," says Sheila Zedlewski, an Urban Institute income security expert.

    The survey also revealed surprising differences in insurance coverage between children and adults, with children enjoying more protection than adults. About one in eight children – 12 percent – lacked health insurance, including 21 percent of low-income children. (Nationally, about 8 percent of all children in low income families were in "poor or fair health" and 10 percent had no dependable source of health care, researchers said.)

    "Adults fared worse," analysts found. More than a third – 37 percent – of all low-income adults had no health insurance. Of this group, about one in four were in poor or only fair health.

    "These findings indicate that children now have better coverage and access to care than adults," says Stephen Zuckerman of the Urban Institute. "Addressing the health care problems of adults could be the next major challenge facing state and local policymakers."

    The survey also questioned adults and children about their mental well-being. "Parents in low-income families were much more likely than other parents to report symptoms of poor mental health (25 percent versus 10 percent) and to experience frequent high levels of aggravation (14 percent versus 6 percent)," the Urban Institute analysts wrote.

    Those problems were particularly acute among single parents. Nearly a third – 32 percent – of parents who were not married reported symptoms of poor mental health, compared with 21 percent of married parents. "Among higher-income families, parents who are not married were twice as likely as married parents to report these symptoms," the analysts wrote.

    What's more, researchers found that the problems experienced by poor parents often extend to their children. Children in lower-income families are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems and are less likely to be highly involved in school than children in upper-income families, reports Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends.

    Lower-income children also are less likely to participate in clubs, sports or lessons outside the classroom. Still, 73 percent of those lower-income children said they did participate in some form of extracurricular activities, compared with 90 percent of the children from more affluent families. "This is good news, because research indicated that these activities can be an important protective factor for young people growing up in difficult circumstances," Moore says.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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