Stateline Story

New Study Paints Grim Picture Of Lifestyle For U.S. Underclass

  • January 25, 1999
  • By Clare Nolan

A vast national survey of the financial, emotional and mental well-being of American families finds poor children and their parents are at least twice as likely to suffer a wide range of hardships than their wealthier counterparts.

"Snapshots of America's Families", released this morning by the Urban Institute, also reveals significant disparities in family health across states, with high percentages of households in California and Texas, the nation's two most populous states, in financial and emotional trouble.

Drawn from interviews with adults in more than 44,000 households from February to November 1997, the survey outlines the difficulties faced by the nation's poor just as the states undertook in earnest the massive overhaul of the federal welfare system. To gauge the effects of reform, the Urban Institute plans to repeat the survey again this year.

Throughout the United States, low-income families are three times more likely to have trouble paying the rent, mortgage and utility bills, the survey shows. Poor families are also three times more likely to run out of food or to worry about running out of food.(Low-income families are defined as those making less than 200% of the federal poverty level, less than $31,822 in 1996 for a family of two parents and two children.)

Poor children and children in poverty outnumber adults by almost two to one are more than twice as likely than children from wealthier families to live with a parent who feels highly aggravated, to live with a parent showing signs of mental illness or to suffer emotional distress themselves. Low-income children are less likely to find school highly engaging and the youngest low-income children are less likely to have a parent read to them or tell them a story often.

In addition to looking at the national picture, the Urban Institute hones in on 13 states, home to more than half the U.S. population. They are Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

The researchers found wide differences among them.

"State variation in a time of devolution needs to guide the policies to assure that states have the tools they need in order to address social problems," the Urban Institute's Alan Weil said at a news conference.

While the extent of poverty in Mississippi has long been recognized one out of four people there (not counting the elderly) lives in poverty, the survey highlights the stark poverty in the nation's two largest states, California and Texas. If the goal of welfare reform is to improve the financial well-being of the poorest families, as well as to move adults into jobs, the two largest states face the biggest hurdles.

One out of five Californians lives in poverty. Of California's bulging population of 32 million, almost 6.5 million people are very poor more than in any other state. In Texas, 19%, or more than 3.7 million, live in poverty. In both states, the percentage of children in poverty is also significantly higher than the national average, 28% in California and 25% in Texas.

Low-income Californians and Texans are also much more likely to report concerns about buying food than low-income parents in the other states. More than 58% in California and more than 60% in Texas report difficulties. Researchers also found in these two states higher percentages of parents suffering from symptoms of mental illness.

Researchers did find a bright spot for Texas Governor George W. Bush, who this year is claiming education as his top priority. Low-income children in Texas like and participate in school more than poor children in any of the other states described in the survey.

For the poor in the upper Midwest, particularly Minnesota and Wisconsin, the picture is much different. Of the 13 states highlighted by the survey, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Minnesota families report the best financial health, with their rates of poverty significantly lower than the national average of 15%. Fewer families in these states report trouble paying for food.

In Wisconsin, where welfare-to-work was born, 74% of low-income parents work full or part-time, a rate 12% higher than the national average. Low-income families in Minnesota and Michigan are also working at rates higher than the national average. The findings on parental mental health, parental aggravation and behavioral and emotional problems in children in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota were near or below the national average.

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