Miss. Has Highest Poverty Level

By Katherine Pfleger
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1999; 3:36 a.m. EST

WASHINGTON ­­ Just 6.2 percent of New Hampshire's residents lived in poverty in 1996. Meanwhile, in Mississippi about one-fifth of the state's residents lived below the poverty line, the Census Bureau reports today.

The state-by-state breakdown paints a bleak picture for some regions of the country, particularly the South, where poverty rates ran high in 1996. In contrast, the poverty rates of Northeastern states were often in the single digits.

Nationally, 13.7 percent of Americans ­ and 20.5 percent of children ­ lived in poverty in 1996, according to the report.

The poverty threshold differs by household, depending mainly on the size of the family. In 1996, the poverty line for a family of four was $16,036 a year.

The Census Bureau released figures in September indicating that the number of people living in poverty dropped by more than 1 million in 1998. But the report did not have details on the states.

A range of factors contribute to widespread differences among states, including a state's income, percentage of minorities and social program spending, said Sheldon Danziger, social work and public policy professor at the University of Michigan.

For example, Texas' high immigration rates and large number of racial and ethnic minorities contribute to its below-average performance, Danziger said. About 18 percent of all Texans and 26 percent of the state's children live in poverty.

"Texas has always been a state with a relatively restrictive set of social programs," Danziger said. "It's a state that has always had a good deal of inequality."

Greg Duncan, education and social policy professor at Northwestern University, says a key indicator is also education spending.

"The levels of spending on services like schooling tend to be correlated pretty substantially with poverty rates," Duncan said.

Iowa, for instance, has one of the highest education spending per pupil, he said. In 1996, 12.7 percent of Iowa's children lived in poverty, the sixth lowest level in the country.

The District of Columbia fared the worst, with 21.1 percent of all residents and 35.6 percent of children living in poverty. The district, however, is an urban area, comparable to other cities, not states.

Child care advocates point to the figures to argue that government should spend more to help the poor, particularly families.

"The last time we had such strong economic recovery in the 1960s, child poverty rates dropped in half," said Arloc Sherman, poverty researcher at the Children's Defense Fund, a liberal advocacy group. "Here, they have plateaued in most states."

Moreover, some of the states with the highest poverty, including West Virginia, Louisiana and Mississippi, have not spent much of their federal welfare dollars, Sherman said.

Median household incomes, which range from $46,803 in New Jersey to $25,822 in West Virginia, are also an indicator of families' needs.

Differences in the cost of living across the country do not explain the gap, said Deborah Weinstein, family income division director of the Children's Defense Fund.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press