Maine’s children are less than a quarter of our population, but all of our future. In the next 10 to 30 years they will be our workers, our taxpayers and our policymakers. If we take care of our children now, we take care of our families, our communities and ourselves.
So when more than one in six Maine children, including one in five under age 5, live in poverty, we need to consider what it means for all our futures. This problem is not confined to Maine alone. Nationwide, one in five children is poor, an increase of 1.4 million in just one year. For a family of four, that means living on an income of less than $21,954.
This week, the U.S. Census Bureau delivered more stark evidence that the Great Recession is threatening family economic security in America. Maine’s median household income, which was already well below the national average of $50,221, actually fell between 2007 and 2009 from $47,496 to $45,734. Moreover, economists predict poverty rates will rise again next year and may not reach pre-recession levels for another decade.
The increasing number of poor Americans has unacceptable costs for our country and our state. The impact on children and young adults will be especially harsh and could linger for years.
There is plenty of evidence that growing up in poverty is a hazard both to children and to our economy. Children in low-income families tend to have inadequate nutrition, are more likely to have poor health, to fall behind in school and to be less productive as workers when they grow up. Young adults entering the labor force in a recession do worse than their peers who start work during more prosperous times. It can take these young workers years to catch up, if they ever do.
The long-term effects of child poverty could have dire consequences on our state’s future economic health. An analysis of Maine’s economy by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows that by 2018, 62 percent of the work force will require at least some college education to meet the state’s employment needs. Children growing up in poverty will be ill prepared to advance their educations and fill these jobs.
While extensive poverty is deeply troubling, it is not intractable. The economic recovery legislation enacted by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama included many provisions that reduced the severity of poverty and the extent of joblessness.
Increases in benefits such as food stamps and nutrition programs decrease the risk of health problems among young children. Expansion of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit provided more income for low-wage working families. And Unemployment Insurance extensions helped millions of people avoid destitution.
This deepening poverty should be a clear call to our leaders in Washington, D.C., that investments in jobs and protections against hardship must remain a priority. But many of those investments will soon expire, and some in Congress are using concerns about the deficit to justify cutting the very programs that are helping most.
Unless Congress acts, the recent expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit will expire at the end of this year. If that happens, in 2011 there will be 55,000 fewer Maine children receiving part or all of the CTC and 30,000 fewer families will receive part or all of the EITC. Cutting such assistance now will undermine efforts to reduce our long-term deficit by leaving families without the resources they need to contribute to economic growth.
The Great Recession is deeper and more painful than anything we’ve experienced in the past 70 years. We simply must prevent long-term harm to family economic security. Our leaders in Washington did the right thing by investing in successful pro-family protections in early 2009. The need for those investments is far from over.
Elinor Goldberg is the executive vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance.