Two lists issued this week highlight areas where targeted policies — and funding — can improve the lives of the state’s children.
One is the annual Kids Count report, which shows that a growing number of Maine kids are living in poverty and that, not surprisingly, low-income children perform worse in school than their peers from higher income households.
The second is a list released by the state Department of Education, which when ordered by the percentage of students deemed proficient in reading and writing, shows that, generally, schools in lower income communities had worse outcomes than those with more financial means. Eight of the top 10 schools, measured in terms of the percentage of students who are proficient in reading and math over the past three years, are in York and Cumberland counties, which have the smallest percentages of children in poverty, according to Kids Count.
These sets of data show that tackling poverty, especially childhood poverty, isn’t a feel-good endeavor, but rather a smart — and needed — investment in Maine’s future.
“Childhood poverty is strongly associated with many problems later in life, including low achievement in school, chronic health problems and arrests for criminal offenses,” said Dean Crocker, president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, which has published the Kids Count data book for 16 years.
According to the book, nearly 22 percent of Maine children under the age of 5 were living in poverty in 2008, up from 19.4 percent in 2007. The percentage of children under 18 living in poverty has also risen, from about 15 percent in 2007 to 16.5 percent in 2008. The poverty level for a family of four in 2008 was $21,200.
The poverty rate varied from a high of nearly 29 percent in Washington County to just under 12 percent in York County.
Smart, targeted policies can improve the situation. The earned income tax credit, which lets low-income families keep more of their earnings, has been shown to ease poverty. An expansion of the state’s credit, by making it refundable, was included in last year’s tax reform package, which some are trying to repeal in June.
Likewise, expansions of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid have eased a barrier to employment. Access to health care for both parents and their children reduces absenteeism and keeps parents in the work force.
Reducing spending on education administration, which the Baldacci administration has pushed through school district consolidation, so more money can go to classrooms can improve educational outcomes. This would especially benefit low-income children. If these children do better in school, they are more apt to continue their education, which will improve their job — and earning — prospects.
By following through on these efforts, the state and federal government can begin to reverse the poverty trend.