time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate
abolition of poverty.-- Martin Luther
King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967
It has been said that we are entering a new era of
government policy. If so, it could be an
opportune time to belatedly heed the call of Dr. Martin Luther King and revamp
our policies toward the poor. Over the past decade we have moved from a set of
policies that provided cash assistance (mostly inadequate) to people who were
in need (by standards set by the government) to one in which those who can work
are expected to do so. In the process,
we have ignored the fact that the poor are not a homogenous group of people,
all of whom can and will work if they have no other means of support. They are, in fact, quite diverse. Recognizing this diversity is a necessary prerequisite
for developing effective antipoverty policies.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.5 percent of the
population (over 37 million) was below the poverty line in 2007. While non-Hispanic whites are the largest
group in poverty (16 million, or 43 percent of the total), the poverty
population is disproportionately minority.
Over one-quarter are African American and a similar percentage are
Hispanics of all races. Children
constitute a third of the poverty population, many of them living in single-mother
families. If we do not address the needs
of these children, we don’t just fail to reduce the current poverty population,
we multiply our future problems. Poor
children often lack access to the services and opportunities needed to move up
the economic ladder when they reach adulthood unless the public sector provides
The breakdown of children in poverty shows them almost
equally divided by race and ethnicity, with each major group (non-Hispanic
whites, African Americans, and Hispanics) constituting about one-third of the
total. But the chances of being poor are higher if you are an African American
or Hispanic child than if you are an Asian or non-Hispanic white child.
The chance of being poor is also higher if the child is
in a female-headed family. Fifty-nine
percent of poor children are in female-headed families, and the poverty rate
for children in these families is 43 percent.
Put these two factors together—being an African American or Hispanic
child living in a female-headed family and you have a one in two chance of
being poor, compared with a one in three chance if you are a white child in a
Approximately 22 percent of all children in the United States under
the age of 18 are the children of immigrants. The poverty rate among these children
(slightly more than one-half of whom are Hispanic) is nearly 40 percent higher
than it is among children of the native born.
One-half of these children are in low-income families, despite the fact
that their parents have relatively high work effort.
Clearly any strategy for reducing poverty in the long run
must reach children. But doing so often
involves helping their parents or other adults in the households in which they
live. Over the past decade, our principal
strategy for doing this has been through promoting work effort. Knowing more about the characteristics of
these families helps us assess what strategies are likely to be effective in
helping them escape poverty.
At the present time, finding and keeping a job is a
challenge for many workers. But it may
be especially true for those in poor or low-income (below 200 percent of the
poverty line) families. As we think
about how to expand employment opportunities for these individuals, we should
keep their special circumstances in mind.
African American and Hispanic families are more likely
to be unemployed and to work at low wages.
A forthcoming paper by Urban Institute researchers Gregory Acs and
Pamela Loprest (Working for Cents on the Dollar: Race and Ethnic Wage Gaps in the Noncollege
Labor Market) indicates that low-wage work opportunities are different for
the two groups, suggesting that different policies or strategies are needed to
improve their economic conditions. While
both African Americans and Hispanics are likely to have low levels of education
compared with their white counterparts, educational differences explain more of
the wage disparities between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics than they do the
wage disparities between non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.
For Hispanics, policies might be oriented toward
improving their educational and skill levels and, for immigrants, also improving
English language skills. While more
education and training will help African Americans, they are likely to need additional
policies to help them advance. Some of
the difficulties African Americans face may be due to their relative isolation
from places of economic opportunity. Any
policies to promote employment will need to take this fact into account by also
expanding the supply of affordable housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods,
increasing job opportunities in communities in which African Americans live, improving
transportation, or some combination of these policies.
Regardless of race or ethnicity, single mothers have a
difficult time balancing work and family.
Work supports that boost their income and provide access to child care
are important for women who head families without a partner present. But low-wage workplaces rarely provide the
types of supports that parents need in order to help their children develop
through parental participation in school activities and consultation with their
children’s teachers. Moreover, the
children lack access to quality child care and early education programs that
would facilitate cognitive development and socialization. As part of an Urban Institute initiative to
develop a New Safety Net, researchers Shelley Waters Boots, Jennifer Macomber,
and Anna Danziger (Family Security:
Supporting Parents’ Employment and Children’s Development) outline a set of
policies that would support parents’ employment and also facilitate children’s
development. These include flexible
work schedules, paid leave, and comprehensive family supports through greater
funding for Early Head Start, increased child care subsidies, and stronger
connections between the child care subsidy system and work supports.
If we are going to make a serious dent in poverty, the United States
will have to develop an integrated set of policies that address the diverse and
interrelated needs of the poor and, more broadly, the low-income population. Promoting employment without addressing
issues of skills training, discrimination, and physical isolation will not lift
low-income working families out of poverty and into the middle class. Putting mothers in the labor force without
addressing their children’s needs will only roll the problems forward to the
Some might argue that we cannot address these issues
during tough economic times, but tough times often provoke bold solutions. Let us hope this is one of those times.
more information on studies and recommendations cited here, go to http://www.urban.org/center/lwf/index.cfm
C. Simms is a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute. The
Urban Institute gathers data, conducts research, evaluates programs, offers
technical assistance overseas, and educates Americans on social and economic
issues—to foster sound public policy and effective government.