Disinformation isn't compassion

Maggie Gallagher

8/15/2000 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
If millions of children's families fall apart and The New York Times refuses to notice, does it really happen?

The headline in the Times was: "U.S. Child Poverty Rate Fell as Economy Grew But Is Above 1979 Level." The puzzled reporter searched high and low for the reason why there are still 3 million more American children in poverty today than 20 years ago, according to a new study released by Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty.

"Elected officials and advocates for children across the country cited low wages and high living costs as primary factors in the persistence of child poverty," the paper reported.

Deborah Leff, who heads the domestic hunger relief organization America's Second Harvest, pointed to the minimum wage laws: "You can get off welfare, play by the rules, and still not be able to feed your family," asserted Leff. If you ignore food stamps and the wage supplement called the Earned Income Tax Credit, that's probably true. Elie Ward, director of New York's Statewide Youth Advocacy, blamed high living costs, while Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizen's Committee for Children, said new immigrants with large families and low wages are the reason. The one poor mother profiled in the piece is a married woman born in the United States, with a 6-year-old living at home, who cannot make ends meets: "On Friday I have to make a choice," Mrs. Garcia says. "Pay the gas bill or buy shoes for my daughter."

Gee, two months ago, the last time I bought new shoes for my 5-year-old, they were eight bucks at K-Mart. Either Mrs. Garcia's got a very low gas bill, or the reporter wasn't much interested in finding out the real causes of her family's distress.

Even more fishy: Working together, the Times asserts, assorted elected officials and child advocates couldn't figure out why, despite a 20-year economic boom, child poverty has yet to recede.

Excuse me, learned friends and colleagues, but may I point out to you that giant elephant in the room? The one called fatherlessness, the one you genteelly refuse to notice or report?

In 1980, 18 percent of all babies were born to unmarried mothers. By 1990, 28 percent of all babies were born out of wedlock. Today, the latest figures show about one-third of children begin life with a single mom. Any questions?

In 1979, 49 percent of families with minor children headed by single women were poor. How has that changed over the last 20 years? Answer: not at all. In 1996, 49 percent of families with minor children headed by single moms were still poor. The risk of poverty follows single moms long after the baby is out of diapers and needs no child care. One study that looked at families with teen-agers found that African-American children were twice as likely and white children three times as likely to be poor if they lived with a single parent. Single mothers with a high school diploma were almost five times more likely to be poor than married couples who were high school graduates.

When it comes to avoiding deep and persistent poverty, wedded parents are even more key. In one study children whose parents never married were 40 times more likely to be poor for all or most of their childhood than children whose parents stayed married.

Maybe this will come as no surprise to you and me, but in the face of such bland, respectable disinformation in high places, it's worth repeating: One key cause of child poverty in this country is parents who do not get and stay married.

Disinformation is not compassion: Covering up the real forces sweeping children into poverty will only keep us from finding ways to get them out.