How are the Children?

18.2 % of Maine children continue to live in poverty, median family incomes are down, but more young adults have health insurance coverage

 The American Community Survey (ACS), an ongoing survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, provides data every year — giving policy makers, communities and businesses the current information they need to plan for investments and services. The Maine Children’s Alliance uses ACS data to track the well-being of our youngest citizens, keeping an eye on long-term trends.

How are the children?
Data from the American Community Survey helps us to understand how Maine children are doing in the current economy.

According to the 2011 ACS one-year estimates, 18.2 percent (49,000) Maine children under age 18 lived in poverty, a 23 percent increase from 2007 when the child poverty rate was 14.8 percent. There are significantly more Maine children living in poverty today than there were five years ago. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 poverty thresholds, a family of four (2 parents, 2 children) lived in poverty if their annual earnings were less than $22,350.

The current economy continues to affect our youngest the most, with a far greater proportion of children under age 5 living in poverty than any other age group. The poverty rate for children under age 5 increased 36 percent in the last five years, going from 17.9 percent in 2007 to 24.3 percent in 2011. There are 3,000 more young children living in poverty today than before the economic downturn. And, of great concern, 10 percent or 7,700 young children in Maine live in extreme poverty ($11,175 annual income for a family of four).

Let us pause and think about this for a moment. Families in poverty strive to make sure their children are well cared for with far less tools than middle income families. State budget decisions in the last legislative session to cut Head Start, home visiting and child care subsidies limit those tools even further.  How can this be? Why were the youngest and most vulnerable among us asked to pay such a high price?

These young Mainers have no voice and cannot speak to the personal and community benefits reaped by their having access to quality child care, preventive health care services or home visits by a health care worker. Lost in the legislative debate was the science and data that demonstrates if we want Maine to have a prosperous future, we need strong, healthy children who can lead tomorrow’s communities.  All modern science says that the best way for us to ensure this is to provide young children with healthy, nurturing experiences that will literally “build the brain’s architecture” during these early years.  Babies don’t have boot straps and should not be held hostage to an ideology that forgets self-reliance is built in the early years of development.

And so, let’s return to the data.  In 2011, approximately 42 percent (108,000) of Maine children lived in a low income family. This is an increase of 8,700 children from 2007, when just over 99,000 Maine children were living in low income families. Children in low income families is defined as the share of children under age 18 living in families with incomes less than twice the federal poverty threshold. Thus, a family of four earning less than $44,700 in 2011 was considered to be low income. This distinction is important because, while children in poverty face many hardships, low income families often struggle to provide the basic needs for their children, too.

Incomes have remained stagnant over the last five years, with income losses occurring for most households, including families with children. In 2011, the median income of families with children fell to $53,570, down from $55,152 in 2007. Nationally, the 2011 median income of families with children was $58,035, down from $58,686 in 2007. Maine’s families have been hit hard, losing more than $1,500 in median income over the last five years. Again, let’s pause and think about the impact of that income loss on the lives of children.

In 2010, Maine’s livable wage (the income needed for a family of four to meet their basic needs of rent, food, child care and health insurance) was calculated to be $55,536 by Maine’s Department of Labor. Therefore, according to the ACS, half of Maine’s families with children have incomes below the livable wage. Costs have gone up for families while their incomes have declined. Therefore, it makes sense that ACS data show that nearly 1 in 3 of Maine’s children live in households receiving some form of public economic supports, including supplemental nutrition benefits (SNAP).

Housing and stable adequate income have an influence on a child’s cognitive, social-emotional and physical well-being.[1]  When families are provided with the support to ensure children’s basic needs the risks of negative child development outcomes are significantly decreased. The economic status of young children then becomes a public health concern, as well as an educational concern.

There is good news to be found in the ACS data. In 2011, an estimated 95 percent of Maine children under age 18 were insured. Health insurance can make a lasting difference in children’s lives, giving them access to a stable source of health care and preventative services. In Maine, children who live in low income families are eligible for MaineCare.

Ned McCann, Executive Director of the Maine Children’s Alliance said, “Ensuring each child a safe and healthy childhood results in significant positive outcomes later in that child’s life. As research shows, uninsured children are more likely to go without needed health care, lack access to prescription medicines, and experience worse health outcomes than those with coverage.”

McCann also stressed that, “All children and young adults should be able to obtain health insurance and affordable preventative health care.”

While the ACS estimates showed that nearly 11 percent of all Maine people were uninsured, the uninsured rate for young adults ages 19 to 25 was 19 percent, down from 26 percent in 2009.

McCann said, “The increase in young adults in Maine with health insurance is the result of sound public policy, a provision of the Affordable Care Act allowing adult children under age 26 to stay on their parents’ private insurance plans. This is good news.”

However, the Governor and the 125th state legislature acted to eliminate older children and young adults (age 19-20) from eligibility for MaineCare,  potentially leaving 7,000 without health insurance in the future. Some of these cuts pursued by the LePage administration will require approval from the federal government and a final decision is expected this fall.

The good news story for young adults with access to health care coverage today is the result of good public policy. We can’t go backward on our commitment to insure Maine’s children. We must continue to cover them! In addition, we must continue to find ways to support low income working families who struggle in this tough economy.

Maine kids may be 20 percent of our current population, but they are 100 percent of Maine’s future. Let’s invest in them and make a commitment to turn some of the ACS figures around so that soon we will be telling more good news stories.

[1] Duncan, G. & Magnuson, K. “The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty,” Pathways, Winter 2011, Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, Stanford University, CA.

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