02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tailoring Assistance: How Antipoverty Policy Can Address Diverse Needs within the Poverty Population

Originally posted at Spotlight on Poverty.

The 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 homogeneous 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 U.S. 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 that access.

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 female-headed family.

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 next generation.

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.

For more information on studies and recommendations cited here, visit the Urban Institute.