Spotlight Exclusives

Tailoring Assistance, By Margaret C. Simms, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute

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Thetime has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediateabolition of poverty.–  Martin LutherKing, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967


It has been said that we are entering a new era ofgovernment policy.  If so, it could be anopportune time to belatedly heed the call of Dr. Martin Luther King and revampour policies toward the poor. Over the past decade we have moved from a set ofpolicies that provided cash assistance (mostly inadequate) to people who werein need (by standards set by the government) to one in which those who can workare 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 prerequisitefor developing effective antipoverty policies.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.5 percent of theU.S.population (over 37 million) was below the poverty line in 2007.  While non-Hispanic whites are the largestgroup in poverty (16 million, or 43 percent of the total), the povertypopulation is disproportionately minority. Over one-quarter are African American and a similar percentage areHispanics of all races.  Childrenconstitute a third of the poverty population, many of them living in single-motherfamilies.  If we do not address the needsof these children, we don۪t just fail to reduce the current poverty population,we multiply our future problems.  Poorchildren often lack access to the services and opportunities needed to move upthe economic ladder when they reach adulthood unless the public sector providesthat access.


The breakdown of children in poverty shows them almostequally divided by race and ethnicity, with each major group (non-Hispanicwhites, African Americans, and Hispanics) constituting about one-third of thetotal. But the chances of being poor are higher if you are an African Americanor Hispanic child than if you are an Asian or non-Hispanic white child. 


The chance of being poor is also higher if the child isin a female-headed family.  Fifty-ninepercent of poor children are in female-headed families, and the poverty ratefor children in these families is 43 percent. Put these two factors togetherbeing an African American or Hispanicchild living in a female-headed family and you have a one in two chance ofbeing poor, compared with a one in three chance if you are a white child in afemale-headed family.


Approximately 22 percent of all children in the United States underthe 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 higherthan it is among children of the native born. One-half of these children are in low-income families, despite the factthat their parents have relatively high work effort.


Clearly any strategy for reducing poverty in the long runmust reach children.  But doing so ofteninvolves helping their parents or other adults in the households in which theylive.  Over the past decade, our principalstrategy for doing this has been through promoting work effort.  Knowing more about the characteristics ofthese families helps us assess what strategies are likely to be effective inhelping them escape poverty.


At the present time, finding and keeping a job is achallenge for many workers.  But it maybe especially true for those in poor or low-income (below 200 percent of thepoverty line) families.  As we thinkabout how to expand employment opportunities for these individuals, we shouldkeep their special circumstances in mind. 


African American and Hispanic families are more likelyto be unemployed and to work at low wages. A forthcoming paper by Urban Institute researchers Gregory Acs andPamela Loprest (Working for Cents on the Dollar:  Race and Ethnic Wage Gaps in the NoncollegeLabor Market) indicates that low-wage work opportunities are different forthe two groups, suggesting that different policies or strategies are needed toimprove their economic conditions.  Whileboth African Americans and Hispanics are likely to have low levels of educationcompared with their white counterparts, educational differences explain more ofthe wage disparities between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics than they do thewage disparities between non-Hispanic whites and African Americans. 


For Hispanics, policies might be oriented towardimproving their educational and skill levels and, for immigrants, also improvingEnglish language skills.  While moreeducation and training will help African Americans, they are likely to need additionalpolicies to help them advance.  Some ofthe difficulties African Americans face may be due to their relative isolationfrom places of economic opportunity.  Anypolicies to promote employment will need to take this fact into account by alsoexpanding the supply of affordable housing in opportunity-rich neighborhoods,increasing job opportunities in communities in which African Americans live, improvingtransportation, or some combination of these policies.


Regardless of race or ethnicity, single mothers have adifficult time balancing work and family. Work supports that boost their income and provide access to child careare important for women who head families without a partner present.  But low-wage workplaces rarely provide thetypes of supports that parents need in order to help their children developthrough parental participation in school activities and consultation with theirchildren۪s teachers.  Moreover, thechildren lack access to quality child care and early education programs thatwould facilitate cognitive development and socialization.  As part of an Urban Institute initiative todevelop a New Safety Net, researchers Shelley Waters Boots, Jennifer Macomber,and Anna Danziger (Family Security:Supporting Parents۪ Employment and Children۪s Development) outline a set ofpolicies that would support parents۪ employment and also facilitate children۪sdevelopment.   These include flexiblework schedules, paid leave, and comprehensive family supports through greaterfunding for Early Head Start, increased child care subsidies, and strongerconnections between the child care subsidy system and work supports. 


If we are going to make a serious dent in poverty, the United Stateswill have to develop an integrated set of policies that address the diverse andinterrelated needs of the poor and, more broadly, the low-income population.  Promoting employment without addressingissues of skills training, discrimination, and physical isolation will not liftlow-income working families out of poverty and into the middle class.  Putting mothers in the labor force withoutaddressing their children۪s needs will only roll the problems forward to thenext generation. 


Some might argue that we cannot address these issuesduring tough economic times, but tough times often provoke bold solutions.  Let us hope this is one of those times.


Formore information on studies and recommendations cited here, go to


MargaretC. Simms is a Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute. TheUrban Institute gathers data, conducts research, evaluates programs, offerstechnical assistance overseas, and educates Americans on social and economicissuesto foster sound public policy and effective government.

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