By STEVE SZKOTAK Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The percentage of Virginia children living in poverty in 2010 was at its highest rate since 1998, an anti-poverty group reported Tuesday.
The total number of children living in poverty totals nearly 265,000, or 14 percent of children under 18 in the state, Voices for Virginia's Children said in a report to be presented to the General Assembly.
While well below the U.S. rate, the number in Virginia has increased steadily since the start of the economic downturn in 2007, when it was 12.9 percent, according to the report. In raw numbers, an additional 33,000 children are living in poverty.
The poverty level for a family of four is defined as less than $22,000 in annual income.
"With child poverty rates climbing," the report says, "public policies that help families avoid or escape poverty and that promote educational success for disadvantaged children are even more important now than before the start of the recession."
The Virginia childhood poverty rate is below the U.S. average, which was 21.6 percent in 2010. The Virginia numbers are stark, however, because of the state's relatively low unemployment when compared with the rest of the nation and its high median family income for households, which tops $70,000.
The report recommends that legislators:
- Promote outreach efforts to ensure all eligible children are enrolled in nutrition programs, such as school breakfast and lunch programs. It also backs Gov. Bob McDonnell's "No Child Hungry" campaign to strengthen those efforts.
- Adopt policies to help schools expand the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Only about two-thirds of the state's disadvantaged 4-year-olds are enrolled in either that program or Head Start.
- Restore funds for early childhood home visiting programs that provide parent education and other services to vulnerable families. The programs teach child-rearing skills and early childhood health.
- Preserve funds for Virginia's Child Care Assistance Program, which provides child-care subsidies to low-income working parents. The idea is to provide a helping hand to parents so they can stay employed.
Drawing on 2010 Census data, the report offers an array of child poverty statistics that illustrate various elements of childhood poverty in Virginia. Among the key findings:
- Nearly one in three black children and one in five Hispanic children live in poverty. For non-Hispanic white children, the ratio is one in 10.
- The cities of Petersburg and Danville have the top childhood poverty rates in Virginia, each with rates of topping 40 percent. Cities with rates topping 30 percent include Martinsville, Richmond, Roanoke and Bristol. Buchanan County has the highest rate among counties, nearly 35 percent.
- Northern Virginia counties and localities, traditionally enjoying some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, report low childhood poverty rates. The lowest: the city of Falls Church, at 2.7 percent. Loudoun and Fairfax counties are below 10 percent. Elsewhere, Hanover and York counties are below 10 percent.
- Childhood poverty is the highest among the youngest, from birth to age 5. Among that age group, the poverty level was 18 percent in 2010.
- Childhood poverty is sharply higher in single-parent families: nearly 30 percent compared with just more than 5 percent.
- Among immigrant groups, child poverty rates are lower. The report said "the reality is that most poor children were born in the United States and reside with U.S.-born parents."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)