Childhood poverty increasing in Mass.

Census data show 182,000 living in need

By David Abel

Globe Staff / September 17, 2008

The number of children in the state living in poverty is increasing, pushing Massachusetts lower in the ranking of states with children in need, according to a new report.

The report, released yesterday by Massachusetts Citizens for Children, highlights new data from the US Census Bureau that show 182,000 children, 13 percent of all children under age 18 in Massachusetts, lived below the federal poverty line last year, 4,000 more than in 2006.

The state last year ranked 11th in the percentage of children living in poverty, below Alaska, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maryland, Hawaii, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. In 2006, Massachusetts ranked fifth.

"These 182,000 children would form an unbroken line the entire length of the 138-mile Massachusetts Turnpike," said Jetta Bernier, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children.

"A legislator driving on the Mass. Pike from his or her district to the State House would pass by a child who is poor every four feet, or 1,300 children every mile."

Even worse, in a state with one of the nation's highest median family incomes (about $60,000 in 2006), about 87,000 children lived in extreme poverty, or families of four earning less than $10,600 a year.

Bernier said that Massachusetts has the third widest divide between the rich and poor in the nation and that the divide is growing at the fourth fastest rate.

"The chasm is threatening to undermine our state's bright future," she said.

The report suggested that the Census Bureau focus on the federal poverty line, in effect, conceals the true number of people living in poverty.

The federal poverty level - about $20,000 for a family of four - uses a decades-old formula that doesn't take into account the rapid increase in the costs of housing, transportation, education, and fuels, among other things.

The report also noted how children of color are much more likely to live in poverty.

The percentage of the state's Latino children living in poverty last year jumped to 40 percent, up 4 percent from the year before.

At the same time, 28 percent of black children lived in poverty, down 1 percent from 2006.

About 7 percent of white children lived in poverty, the same as the year before.

The report linked the rising poverty rates to healthcare problems, unemployment, high school dropouts, teen pregnancies, crime, and prison costs.

"It takes more money to live here," said Benita Danzing, director of the Massachusetts Kids Count Project, "so even families at less extreme levels of poverty still struggle."