JUNE 17, 18:14 EDT

Most Poor Kids Have Working Parents

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's child poverty rate is declining with the strong economy, while more of the children still poor have at least one parent who works but earns too little to lift them out of poverty, a university study says.

The report provides fresh evidence that welfare reform is moving many families into jobs that pay very little, researchers said Thursday.

``Welfare reform has done better at moving families off the rolls than it has at moving families out of poverty,'' said Lawrence Aber, director of Columbia University's Center for Children in Poverty that conducted the study.

Overall, the percentage of children under age six who were poor fell to 22 percent in 1997, down from 23.2 percent in 1996, according to the center's analysis of Census data.

Since 1993, the rate of young children in poverty has fallen by 16 percent after rising 52 percent between 1978 and 1993.

That isn't good enough for Bill Bradley, a Democratic presidential hopeful who happened to be addressing the issue Thursday in Los Angeles. Child poverty rates have changed little during President Clinton's administration, he said, adding, ``But what have they done? They've tinkered around the margins.''

Children are considered poor if their family's income is below the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that meant earning less than $16,400 in 1997.

In 1997, there were about 5.2 million poor young children, including 2.5 million who were ``extremely poor,'' living below half the poverty line.

Thanks to Social Security, poverty rates among seniors have fallen, making young children the most likely in America to be poor. They tend to be poorer than older children because their parents are younger and less established in the job market. Also, a parent is more likely to stay home and not work when children are young.

The report found that 65 percent of poor young children had a parent who worked at least part-time — a 20 percent increase since 1993.

That's partly because welfare changes have pressured parents into low-income jobs, researchers said. But it's also because the strong economy has more jobs available, meaning parents who might not have worked otherwise did, said Martha Zaslow of Child Trends, a private research group.

``Jobs being available is part of the picture,'' she said.

The report also found:

—Most poor kids still live in rural or urban areas, but the suburban rates have grown over time, and in recent years have fallen more slowly than those in urban and rural areas.

—Racial differences are narrowing. The young-child poverty rate among blacks and Hispanics is three times as high as for whites but in recent years, poverty has fallen more quickly among these minority groups than among whites.

The report also suggested an increased need for parents to have a college degree. Over time, poverty has increased markedly for children whose parents' education ends at high school. Researchers have known for a long time that children of high school dropouts were likely to live in poverty.

``It's increasingly apparent that a college degree is necessary for parents to provide a buffer against poverty,'' said Neil Bennett, the report's chief author.

But there was good news, too, the report said. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which gives refunds to the working poor, has lifted many families out of poverty. Without it, the report said, the young-child poverty rate would have been 24 percent higher.

In addition to the federal credit, 10 states have their own similar programs. And more than a dozen are considering them.

``We shouldn't take (high rates) as an excuse to throw up our hands in despair and say nothing can be done,'' Bennett said.

Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.