Let the good times roll! President Bill Clinton was absolutely beaming as he reported the U.S. Census Bureau's annual poverty statistics. "We have proved that we can lift all boats," Clinton proclaimed with presidential emphasis and authority. Well, not so fast, Bill. The big yachts are still doing a whole lot better than the little rowboats.
There was some good news in the 1999 report. The total number of people in poverty did indeed drop, from 34.2 to 32.3 million people. And the number of children in poverty dropped from 13.5 to 12.1 million. The poverty rate declined for every racial and ethnic group, and the rate for African Americans was the lowest ever. Clearly, that's a step in the right direction.
But all Americans did not share in the unprecedented prosperity of the 1990s. The 1999 Census report is one of the first signs of wider benefit. The booming economy is certainly a cause of the improvements, as is an increase in the minimum wage and the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The increased efforts of churches and faith-based programs to overcome poverty are certainly a part of this story, too.
But here's the rest of the story. The poverty rate for black Americans continues to be three times higher than the rate for "non-Hispanic whites" (23.6 percent to 7.7 percent). Thus, race remains intimately connected to poverty in America. Female-headed households are the majority of poor families (53 percent), and fully half of children under the age of 6 in fatherless homes live in poverty (compared to a 9 percent poverty rate for married-couple households). Therefore, family life and structure is a major factor in poverty rates, and children living in healthy two-parent families is still one of our best anti-poverty programs.