Let the hyperventilating begin.
Expect critics of the Bush administration to seize on the U.S. Census Bureau's annual report on poverty. Look, they'll say, poverty's up. They'll blame tax cuts. Or the war in Iraq. Or the gap between rich and poor. Heck, they may try to pin it on SUVs.
They're right about one small thing: Child poverty did rise -- very slightly -- in 2002. But the increase is minimal compared to prior recessions. Over the first two years of the latest recession, child poverty has increased by only one half of 1 percent.
While any increase in poverty is lamentable, this is a very modest one by historic standards. At the start of the previous three recessions (going back to the 1970s), the average rise in child poverty was 2.5 percent -- five times the latest increase.
The Census report shows that more than 12 million children (or 16.7 percent of all American children) experienced poverty last year. The more fundamental issue is why, in our prosperous nation, any children are poor -- in good times or bad.
Essentially, there are two reasons. First, they're poor because they're raised without a father in the home. Second, they're poor because their parents work little or not at all. The lack of work and marriage remain the predominant factors behind child poverty, year after year, in good times and bad.
For example, in 2000 (before the recession), more than 4 million families with children were poor. The typical poor family was supported by 800 hours of paid work during that year. That's only 16 hours per week. In one out of every three poor families, the parents did no work during the entire year.
Well, cynics might argue, the wage rates of poor parents are so low that, even if they work full-time, their families would still be poor. Census data show this isn't the case. Besides, the government supplements the earnings of low-wage parents through programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. These subsidies are enough that a single parent can raise her family's income above poverty by working full-time, even at the minimum wage.
A low level of work, not low wages, is the main cause of child poverty. If yearly work were raised to 2,000 hours per family (the equivalent of one parent working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks) the child poverty rate would plummet: About 75 percent of poor families would rise out of poverty.
But isn't it useless to talk about increasing work when jobs seem scarce? This argument seems plausible. But the work levels of poor parents remain consistently low even in the best economic conditions. In the long term, the earnings of poor parents are hurt more by an eroded work ethic than by a lack of jobs.
The second major reason for child poverty is the collapse of marriage. Nearly two thirds of all poor children live in single-parent homes. Each year, an additional 1.3 million children are born out of wedlock. Social science data show that these children are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those raised by married couples.
Critics argue that unmarried fathers earn too little to support families. The facts show otherwise: If poor single mothers married the fathers of their children, nearly three fourths would be lifted out of poverty immediately.
Clearly, work and marriage are the keys to ending child poverty. Yet for decades, the welfare system has rewarded idle dependence and has penalized marriage. The anti-work, anti-marriage incentives of welfare have trapped multiple generations in a cycle of near-permanent poverty.
Fortunately, in the mid 1990s the welfare system was partially reformed. Many beneficiaries of cash aid were required to search for jobs or prepare for work. The result was an unprecedented drop in dependence, a surge in parental employment, and a dramatic decline in child poverty. But reform has been severely limited. Currently more than half of the parents in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF) are idle. Major welfare programs such as Food Stamps, public housing and Medicaid remain unreformed. We can't reduce child poverty still further under these conditions.
Future reforms must also strengthen marriage. President Bush has proposed a new initiative to do that by reducing the anti-marriage penalties in welfare and providing low-income couples with the skills needed to sustain healthy marriages.
The challenge and the opportunity are clear. Marriage and work are reliable and indispensable roads out of poverty. In the long term, we can't significantly reduce child poverty except by increasing both.
Robert Rector is senior research fellow for welfare and poverty issues at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire