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A quarter of children in 3 counties at high risk level

Posted March 28, 2010, at 8:38 p.m.

Children in Maine continue to live at unacceptable levels of poverty, according to the latest edition of Maine Kids Count, the annual survey of the physical, social, economic and educational well-being of the state’s youngsters. The report, now in its 16th year, is used to identify public policy issues and to guide change in matters affecting children.
Other problems affecting Maine children and underscored in this year’s report are the state’s low median household income — $46,419 compared to $52,029 nationally — and a high incidence of juvenile mental and behavioral health problems.
The Maine Kids Count report will officially be released this morning at the State House with remarks from Gov. John Baldacci, first lady Karen Baldacci and legislative leaders.
This year’s poverty figures continue a trend that has seen annual increases for nearly a decade, even during periods of economic growth, according to the nonprofit Maine Children’s Alliance, which compiles and publishes the report each year.
“This story continues to be about poverty,” said Elinor Goldberg, executive vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance. “And poverty is the single most influential indicator of negative outcomes for kids.” Goldberg said the Maine Children’s Alliance is partnering with a broad coalition of organizations and will soon announce a formal campaign against poverty in Maine.
Statistically, children’s mental and physical health, intellectual development, and academic success are all negatively affected by living in poverty, Goldberg said. In addition, she said, rates of teen pregnancy and criminal behavior also correlate with poverty.
According to this year’s report, about 16.5 percent of children under 18 years old were living in families in 2008 with incomes of 100 percent or less of the federal poverty level, compared to 15.5 percent in 2007. The poverty level for a family of four in 2008 was $21,200.
About 7 percent of children lived that year in extreme poverty, at less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level.
A total of 38 percent of Maine children under 18 in 2008 lived in families with household incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, which is considered low-income.
The highest rate of children living at 100 percent of the federal level or below was found in Washington County at 28.7 percent, followed by Piscataquis County at 26.1 percent and Somerset County at 24.8 percent. York County had the lowest poverty rate at 11.8 percent.
Among Maine’s urban centers, childhood poverty at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level was highest in Lewiston at 41.7 percent. Bangor’s rate was 18.1 percent.

In other areas the report finds:
— Median household income for the two-year period of 2007 and 2008 ranged from a low of $31,856 in Washington County to a high of $54,626 in York County. In Penobscot County, the median income was $42,704.
— Unemployment in 2008 and 2009 was highest in Piscataquis County at 12.4 percent and lowest in Cumberland County at 6.4 percent. Unemployment in Penobscot County was 8.3 percent, near the state average of 8.2 percent.
— In 2007 and 2008, the parents of nearly one-third of Maine children under 5 reported concerns for their children’s emotional, developmental and behavioral health, lower than the national average of 40 percent.
— Of Maine children under 17, 7.2 percent had mental health problems for which they need treatment, higher than the national average of 5.9 percent, with depression and anxiety listed as the most common concerns.

On a brighter note, only 6 percent of Maine children and teens have no health care coverage, compared to the national rate of 12 percent. More than the national average have a regular primary care provider and receive preventive dental care. Rates of obesity have declined slightly since last year’s report, as daily physical exercise has increased.
The number of children in state custody has decreased steadily since 2002, which Goldberg said reflects both decreased funding for protective services and effective policies that seek to restore children to the care of their families in a safe and timely way.
Goldberg said difficult fiscal times challenge policymakers to support the most valuable programming for children.
“We have to make the best use of the dollars that are available, so our children are served effectively,” she said.
Data for the Maine Kids Count report are drawn from a number of public and private sources and reflect the most recent information available. The project is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which also releases a national Kids Count report each year.
The Maine Kids Count report is available online at www.mekids.org.

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