If you're interested in refreshing your opinions -- and perhaps endangering them -- with a dose of reality, you ought to get a copy of a new study by the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office called "Children in Poverty."
The principal message of the first part of the study -- prepared under the direction of Vee Burke, one of the most highly regarded specialists in the country -- is that poverty among children has not only increased in recent years but has also become more severe in degree. In 1968 the poorest fifth of families had enough income to meet 90 percent of their most basic needs. In 1983 they could buy only about 60 percent of the same necessities.
A lot of people take this as evidence that government programs to reduce poverty didn't work. What they conveniently leave out is that some of these programs didn't work because government spending on poor children declined over the last decade -- and this is true whether or not food, medical and other non-cash benefits are counted. The big dollar increases you heard about went to offset inflation and to improve benefits for the elderly and disabled.
No doubt you've read that the absence of fathers from families is a major cause of poverty. True, childhood poverty is distressingly prevalent among female-headed families. But in recent years the sharpest increase in poverty was actually among two-parent families. During the high-unemployment years since 1978, seven out of 10 children entering poverty lived in families with adult men present. As wages have lagged behind inflation, having a working parent has become less of a guarantee against poverty.
Did you think that most poor children are black? Almost two out of three are white. But poor back children are much more likely to be living with only one parent. Black children, especially those in the rural South, also account for most of the "persistently poor." Still, only one out of three poor children remains in poverty for more than four years.
Children born to unmarried mothers are almost six times more likely to be poor than other children, and black children are far more likely to be born out of wedlock than white children. Rising illegitimacy, however, accounts for only a small part (one-sixth) of the growth in the number of fatherless families over the last decade. Much more important were general population growth and an increase in marital breakups.
Using these and other pertinent facts as their guide, Sen. Daniel Moynihan and Reps. Charles Rangel and Harold Ford have selected among poverty- fighting options outlined in the study. Their "Family Economic Security Act of 1985" carries a hefty price tag at a time when Congress is thinking about cuts rather than increases in social programs. Still, it deserves a fair and serious hearing. Sen. Moynihan has stated the reason why: "In the 1970s, we allowed the benefits for children under the AFDC program to decline by one-third. We cut the children's allowance by one-third while we indexed benefits for everyone else. Only the children got left out. If you are under 6 years old in the United States, you are six times more likely to be poor than if you are over age 65. We are the first industrial nation in the world in which children are the poorest age group."