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Report: Extreme Poverty Still Plagues Millions of US  Children - 2002-06-19

Child poverty in the United States has declined in recent years, but, according to a new study, it is still too high, and in some places of rural America, getting worse.

At a congressional staff briefing Wednesday, former Texas governor and Save the Children board member Ann Richards emphasized millions of children in the United States live in extreme poverty.

"It really is an appalling fact that two-and-a-half-million children live in poverty in rural areas in the United States," she said. "Whether we're talking about the borders of Texas, which I know very well, or the central valley of California, or the central Appalachia, the American Indian reservations of the Northern Plains, or the deep South, including the Mississippi Delta, the message is the same: too many of our kids are living in poverty."

A new study by Save the Children published Wednesday sets the poverty line at $17,600 or less for a family of four. That's just over one-third of the median annual family income of nearly $51,000. The study, based on a survey of young Americans aged zero to 17 found that a vast majority of poor counties are in rural areas.

Catherine Milton, executive director for the group's U.S. programs, notes the poverty level is surprising. "I cannot believe the extent of poverty that exists in this country that is really on a level with what I've seen in developing countries," she said. "I can't believe what I've seen."

She said that in more than six years visiting regions around the United States, she has visited what she termed "rural ghettos." "You'll be driving down a road where everything looks fine, and then you'll go off the road into a hollow or into another part of town, and what you'll see are houses that people in this country shouldn't be living in," she added.

The overall poverty rate for rural areas in the United States has improved. But for demographic consultant, Ohio State University professor Daniel Lichter, this larger positive trend hides the fact that there are some U.S. rural areas that are getting worse.

He stressed there is a link between America's rural poverty and rural minorities. "They're [the poor] concentrated in those isolated rural regions, in the Delta, the so-called Black Belt crescent that extends from Arkansas over to North Carolina, which are a large proportions of African-Americans," he explained. "And also, the Indian reservations. The three worst counties in the United States in terms of child poverty are in South Dakota, with poverty rates exceeding 50 percent."

Professor Lichter acknowledged that the poverty in the United States is not on the same level of abject poverty and misery in many other countries around the world. "I don't know what the appropriate comparison is," he said. "If you compare the United States, the child poverty rates here, to other western and northern European countries, we do far worse."

Eighteen-year-old African-American Clifton Sutton, who was at the briefing, says one solution would involve bringing money into his isolated hometown of Duncan, Mississippi, population 300. He spoke optimistically of a business or project acting as a magnet, which, he says, would then allow the town to become economically prosperous.