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Measuring Poverty: A New Approach
changes in public policy, that have occurred since the 1950s and 1960s. These changes involve labor force participation, family composition, geographic price differences, growth in medical care costs and benefits, government taxation, the provision of in-kind benefits to families and individuals, and the overall increase in the standard of living.
Work Patterns of Families with Children
Over the period from 1955 (the date of the survey underlying the original poverty thresholds) to 1993, the percentage of women with a child under age 6 who were in the labor force more than tripled, increasing from 18 to 58 percent. During that same time, the labor force participation rate of women whose youngest child was age 6 or older almost doubled, increasing from 38 to 75 percent (U.S. House of Representatives, 1994: Table 12-1). As a consequence of these changes, there are many more families who must make arrangements for child care in order to earn at least some of their income.
Child care expenditures were a negligible component of consumer expenditures in the 1950s; at that time, one could readily assume that in most U.S. families a parent was available at home. Today, one can no longer make that assumption, and many families face high out-of-pocket child care expenses. Estimates from the 1991 National Child Care Survey are that 57 percent of families with working mothers of pre-school-aged children paid cash for child care and that child care expenses for the average family with such expenses amounted to 10 percent of total family income (U.S. House of Representatives, 1994: Table 12-8). The current poverty measure does not distinguish between families with and without these expenses, either by having separate thresholds for working and nonworking families or by deducting child care costs from earnings; hence, the current measure does not accurately portray the relative poverty status of these two groups.
Composition of Families and Households
Among families with children, one of the most dramatic changes over the past few decades has been the rise in the number that are headed by a single parent, most often a woman: such families increased from 11 to 26 percent of all families with children over the period 1970-1992. As a proportion of all households, single-parent families increased from 5 to 8 percent over the same period (see Bureau of the Census, 1993d: Tables 65, 75). In order to work, such single parents face the problem noted above of finding—and, in many instances, paying for—child care.
Concurrent with the rise in the number of single-parent families is the growth in the number of people who live apart from their children. Many noncustodial parents pay child support, which means that they have fewer