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Child poverty continues to climb in Mass.

Care, housing costs, job squeeze keep rate rising

By Globe Staff 

The persistent rise of child poverty in Massachusetts — confirmed by last week’s census figures for 2013 — is the result of costly day care and housing, the proliferation of low-wage jobs, and a labor market that can be difficult for young parents to break into, according to specialists in the field.

Nearly one in six children in Massachusetts was growing up in poverty as of last year, data from the US Census Bureau show; in households with single mothers, it was one in four.

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Child poverty rose in the state even as it is dropping nationally. The numbers indicate many of the state’s most vulnerable residents have yet to benefit from a steadily improving regional economy.

“Work is not, for a lot of families, sufficient to lift people above poverty,” said Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Minimum-wage jobs with part-time hours and no benefits, for instance, often are not enough to live on.

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The poverty rate for children in Massachusetts increased more than three percentage points between 2009 and 2013 — to 16.3 percent — even as the reported unemployment rate declined.

Nationwide, the Census Bureau reported that child poverty declined for the first time since the economic collapse, although the rate is still higher than it was when the recession technically ended in 2009. Across the country, more than one in five children are still living in households with incomes below the poverty level.

Poverty has been slowly climbing in Massachusetts for the past five years (although specialists caution that each annual increase is not necessarily statistically significant), and children are being affected at a higher rate than the general population.

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That is partly because parents with children under age 18 tend to make less money, said Laura Speer, associate director of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore philanthropy for at-risk children.

“They’re more likely to be younger, less likely to have experience, so they tend to have more difficulty in the labor market,” she said.

High housing and child-care expenses also contribute to the problem, specialists say. In Massachusetts, the annual cost for full-time infant child care is more than $16,000, according to Child Care Aware of America. That makes it the fourth-most-expensive state in the country for child care, and is roughly equivalent to the yearly pay of a full-time minimum-wage worker.

Young children who grow up in unstable homes or without enough to eat are subject to emotional and cognitive impairment, which can lead to poor performance in school and ultimately make it difficult for them to succeed in life, said Dianne Luby, executive director of Horizons for Homeless Children in Roxbury, which provides child care and early education for homeless children around the state.

“It can lead to another cycle of poverty,” Luby said.

Overall, the number of homeless family members in Massachusetts has increased by 81 percent in the past six years, the second-highest increase of any state in the nation, according to Horizons for Homeless Children.

Ayesha Taft and her 2-year-old daughter are among them. Taft, 30, is living in a family shelter in downtown Boston and working toward a medical assistant certificate while her daughter attends the Horizons Roxbury center during the day.

As a child, Taft bounced around in foster care and never graduated from high school. But she is hoping to do better for her daughter.

“You always want more for your kids than you had for yourself,” she said.

Child poverty is highest in cities, according to a Carsey School analysis of the census data. In Massachusetts, nearly 31 percent of urban children are poor, a 6.4 percentage point increase since 2009, compared with about 19 percent in rural areas and 13 percent in the suburbs.

But the numbers look much different when they are broken down by race. In the Northeast, nearly 46 percent of black children in rural areas are living in poverty, compared with slightly more than 19 percent of white children.

Reducing child poverty means making it easier for low-income parents to work, said Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. They need affordable child care, job training, and reliable transportation, he said. And children require access to health care, nutrition, and education so that their future is not determined by impoverished childhoods.

Raising the minimum wage will ease, but not eradicate, the problem, observers say. The state’s minimum hourly pay has been $8 since 2008, but the Legislature this year voted to raise it to $11 an hour by 2017.

“For several decades now, wages have not grown as fast as the overall economy,” Berger said, “and that’s a fundamental problem.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.