December 16, 2017
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Maine can show its children matter by ensuring they are safe, healthy and educated

U.S. Air Force | BDN
U.S. Air Force | BDN

We’ve all heard the cliches that every child matters and that our children are our future. This is literally true in Maine where deaths outnumber births statewide, a downward spiral that can’t be solved without more people moving to Maine and having and raising children here.

Given this reality, it is particularly disheartening that Maine does a poor job of taking care of many of the children we do have.

Last year, 43,000 Maine children were living in poverty, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The federal poverty level for 2017 is $24,600 for a family of four. Of these children, 16,000 live in extreme poverty, meaning their families earn less than half of the federal poverty level.

As the foundation notes, “Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development. Poverty and financial stress can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems and poor health.”

Too many Maine children are also going hungry. In Maine, 15.8 percent of households reported food insecurity between 2013 and 2015, significantly higher than the national average. Of this total, 7.4 percent reported very low food security, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Maine’s very low food security rate was the third highest in the nation, behind Louisiana and Mississippi and tied with Arkansas.

Nationally and in Maine, households with children had higher rates of food insecurity. In Maine, 87 percent of the households that sought help from a hunger relief organization in 2016 included a child, a senior or a person with a disability, according to the study by Preble Street, a Portland-based social service agency, and Good Shepherd Food Bank.

Hunger, poverty, as well as exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, neglect, are known as adverse childhood experiences. These experiences can literally affect the brain development of young children and lead to behavioral and health problems later in life.

Numerous groups in Maine, including law enforcement and the military, and have raised concerns about the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in Maine, but the troubling trends continue.

The Maine Community Foundation hopes a new approach and new messengers will bring more attention to the situation and, with a broader base of support, lead to a focus on solutions.

The Ellsworth-based foundation, which has long managed charitable funds for families, towns and others, has taken on a larger role in improving life in Maine. Early childhood is one of its top priorities and the foundation is holding a conference on the topic in Bangor on Tuesday.

In addition to medical professionals and educators, the foundation has asked business leaders to take a lead in improving life for Maine’s youngest residents. Businesses across Maine are having difficulty filling jobs.

By ensuring Maine’s youngest have a good start in life — by having enough to eat, by living in families that can avoid the stresses of poverty and substance abuse and domestic violence — they will help to build the next generation of workers. In addition, because 70 percent of preschool-aged children live in households where all parents work, their current workforce will be helped by increasing the availability of high-quality child care and early-childhood learning opportunities. Healthier kids also mean parents take less time away from work.

Maine can best show its children matter by making sure they are safe, healthy and well educated.

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