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Poverty Falls for Mothers With Custody

By GENARO C. ARMAS Associated Press Writer, Dec 2, 2003, U.S.A.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of mothers with custody of their children and living in poverty fell by almost a third between 1993 and 2001, the Census Bureau said in a report Tuesday.

Roughly 25 percent of all mothers with custody - about 2.8 million women - lived in poverty in 2001, down from nearly 37 percent, or 4.2 million women, eight years earlier.

Experts cite changes implemented in the welfare overhaul of 1996 as the main reason for the decrease, as states cracked down on deadbeat fathers while nudging single mothers off public assistance rolls and into jobs.

More than 45 percent of women due child support in 2001 received the full amount they were owed, about the same proportion as two years earlier.

"That's good news that collections have remained steady" during a period that included the recession of 2001, said Geraldine Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, a Fredricksburg, Va.-based group.

 But the study still doesn't offer the most up-to-date look of the status of such families since unemployment continued to rise last year. Jensen said most of those laid off were single mothers just off welfare who fell victim to the "last hired, first fired" philosophy.

The changes have had little effect on the numbers of impoverished fathers who have custody of their children. In 2001, 14.7 percent of such fathers, or about 307,000 men, lived in poverty, up from 10.4 percent, or roughly 216,000 men in 1997.

The bureau doesn't consider the change statistically significant.

The rate is relatively unchanged from 1993, when 14.9 percent of fathers with custody lived in poverty.

The report showed that mothers with custody of children and due support payments on average were owed $5,138 a year, about $900 more than for fathers with custody.

Jensen said that in general, fathers with custody may be less willing to seek public assistance or see that child support arrangements are enforced.

"There's great deal of reluctancy to do that because of the perception that it's not manly to seek assistance," he said.

Jesus Alaniz, 46, of Laredo, Texas, said he is frustrated by the treatment he gets at social service offices, even though he's had a child support case since 1989. Alaniz, who has since remarried, was awarded custody and child support for two children, now ages 23 and 18.

"When I walk in, they automatically see a stereotype of a deadbeat dad," said Alaniz, who runs an educational and outreach group for parents seeking child support agreements.

The census report was based on a spring 2002 survey, although questions were asked about income and poverty levels in the previous calendar year.

It found an estimated 13.4 million parents with custody of 21.5 million children younger than age 21. About 5 of every 6 parents with custody were women, a proportion unchanged since 1994.

The percentage of parents with custody who hold full-time, year-round jobs has grown from 46 percent in 1993 to 55 percent in 2001. But participation in a public assistance program has declined from 41 percent to 28 percent.

Congress is discussing improvements to child support regulations as it considers reauthorizing welfare laws. Jensen said improvements should be focused on beefing up enforcement of agreements across state lines.