April 30, 2003
Report Finds Number of Black Children in Deep Poverty Rising
By SAM DILLON
he number of black Americans under 18 years old who live in extreme poverty
has risen sharply since 2000 and is now at its highest level since the government
began collecting such figures in 1980, according to a study by the Children's
Defense Fund, a child welfare advocacy group.
In 2001, the last year for which government figures are available,
nearly one million black children were living in families with after-tax incomes
that were less than half the amount used to define poverty, said the new
study, which was based on Census Bureau statistics and is to be released publicly
today. The defense fund provided a copy in advance to The New York Times.
The poverty line for a family of three was about $14,100, the study
said, so a family of three living in extreme poverty had a disposable income
of about $7,060, the study said.
In early 2000, only 686,000 black children were that poor, the study said,
indicating that the economic circumstances of the United States' poorest black
families deteriorated sharply from 2000 to 2001.
Deborah Weinstein, the director of the division of the Children's Defense
Fund, who oversaw the research that produced the study, said its release had
been timed to influence the national debate over President Bush's tax cut
proposal, which her group opposes, as well as deliberations in the Senate,
where the 1996 law that reshaped the nation's welfare landscape is up for
The Children's Defense Fund has been a consistent critic of the vast overhaul
of the American welfare system carried out during the 1990's.
"The study shows that in the first recession since the welfare law took
effect, black children who have the fewest protections are falling into extreme
poverty in record numbers," Ms. Weinstein said. "So as we consider our federal
policies, are we going to help children who need help the most, or rich people
who don't need help at all?"
Supporters of the welfare changes of the past decade characterized the
study as an effort to focus on a narrow slice of bad news, while ignoring
what the supporters see as the overwhelming benefits that the overhaul had
for most poor families.
"The Children's Defense Fund searched with a laser for something that was
negative to say, because the poverty picture in America since the 1996 welfare
reform is unambiguously positive," said Jason Turner, a visiting fellow at
the Heritage Foundation, who as New York City's commissioner of human resources
from 1998 to 2001 was in charge of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's welfare policies.
The study focused not just on poor black children, but specifically on
black children living in extreme poverty.
Mr. Turner said that such a study ignored the gains made in recent years
by the larger population of poor black children. In 1995, he said, 41.5 percent
of black children lived below the poverty line, but by 2001, only 30 percent
were living in poverty.
The generalized decline in poverty among black children was not in dispute.
"Recent studies show overall poverty has declined among black children,
but fail to show the record-breaking increase in extreme poverty among these
children," the Children's Defense Fund said in a statement that accompanied
the study. "Today's analysis further shows that safety nets for the worst-off
families are being eroded by Bush administration policies that cause fewer
extremely poor children of all races to receive cash and in-kind assistance."
Margy Waller, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a
senior adviser to President Bill Clinton for welfare issues, said that other
recent research, including her own, had supported the conclusion that the
gradual disappearance of safety net programs had driven some of the country's
poorest families deeper into poverty, even as the status of other poor families
improved. Mr. Clinton signed the 1996 overhaul of the welfare system into
"This data is not surprising to me because other work I've seen has shown
that since the welfare reform there have been some increases in extreme poverty,
resulting from lost public benefits," Ms. Waller said. "I think that the '96
welfare reform law has been beneficial for many families. But we also know
that some families are worse off."