Oct. 10, 2002 – While national statistics from the 2000 Census reflect the lowest child poverty rate in 20 years, the percentage of Virgin Islands children in families with incomes below the poverty line increased in the 1990s, from 37 percent to 42 percent.
And more than half of the territory's population is under the age of 19, which is much higher than the national average.
These are the fundamental findings of a report based on 2000 Census statistics that was released Thursday by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.
The report, "A First Look at Children in the U.S. Virgin Islands," shows that 45 percent of children under the age of 5 were found to be living in poverty.
The rising poverty rate occurred at a time when the actual number of children in the territory dropped by 3 percent, with the largest decrease among children under age 5. The Census figures also reflect rising poverty among V.I. families overall, many of them headed by single mothers, with one quarter of all households having an income of no more than $10,000 a year.
Families in poverty with a female head of household "became a more important issue in the Virgin Islands between 1990 and 2000 for two reasons," the report states:
– The proportion of single-parent families rose significantly in the 1990s, from 37 percent to 46 percent in the territory, while the national rate for 2000 was 22 percent.
– The rate of poverty among such families also rose in the territory.
According to the report, 57 percent of Virgin Islands families headed by women with children under age 5 were poor in 1999. Poverty in the report is defined as $16,895 for a family of two adults and two children.
Researchers said the impact of poverty is the greatest on the island of St. Croix, where the economy is the weakest, even among working families. The 2000 Census found that in Frederiksted, 71 percent of homes were headed by a single parent and 68 percent of children were living in poverty.
Policy needs for an exceptionally young population
The researchers who compiled the report cited concern over statistics showing the relative youth of the territory's population, with 53 percent of the territory's inhabitants age 18 or under. This percentage of young people is significantly higher than the national average.
"The findings are deeply disturbing, and the trends are alarming," CFVI board member Alda Monsanto said.
The authors of the report called on public officials and the community at large to utilize the information presented to foster public policy and to reforms the human services system to meet the needs of the territory's youth. Services are especially needed to keep young people in school and to help breadwinners find affordable day care, the said.
Ira Cuttler of Cornerstone Consulting Group pointed to figures in the "First Look" report on the number of children with one or both parents working outside the home. Seven out of ten parents are out earning the daily bread, and in many cases children are home alone, which Cuttler said raises safety and child-development concerns.
Some of the people attending the Thursday morning press conference called to release the report to the public challenged the idea that children raised in poverty will threaten society by becoming anti-social. "I was a poor child, but I ate well and I grew up to be a disciplined, well-behaved child," Krim Ballentine said.
Carol Lotz, representing the Friends of the St. Thomas Libraries, said focusing on statistics alone is developing public policy is "not really realistic. They're just useful when writing grants."
Monsanto, who helps to compile the foundation's annual Kids Count reports on the status of children in the Virgin Islands, said after Thursday's press meeting that the best she can hope for is that the "First Look" report will form the basis for public debate on the issue of child poverty in the territory.
As a child, Monsanto said, she, too, lived in poverty, in a two-room wooden house with kerosene lamps and a night soil pan. But "those standards were acceptable" at that time, she pointed out. "Now, these standards are no longer acceptable. I am not going back to the kerosene lamp. We're not going back to the outhouse."
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