Economic distress threatens children’s futures

A new state law requiring teens to stay in school till age 18 will not help more children succeed in school if their health and well-being have been compromised by pervasive economic duress during their critical growing up years. While this year’s state Kids Count book, released today, shows progress on most key indicators, growing poverty is shadowing more and more children.

Nine of the 15 key indicators encompassing health, education, and economic well-being reflect improving trends. The most dramatic improvements are in the shrinking percentages of public school fourth- and eighth-graders who cannot perform at proficient levels on the math Michigan Educational Assessment Program, and the declines in teen birth rates and child death rates.

On the other hand, in 2007 almost half a million children in Michigan were living in families with income inadequate to provide for their basic needs, and their numbers are growing. Confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect rose by 16 percent between 2000 and 2008. Michigan’s unemployment rate in 2008 averaged 8 percent; by 2009 the average jumped to 14 percent. More and more children are at risk. Yet the state programs to blunt the impact of poverty are being reduced or eliminated.

Children in Michigan’s rural counties, with population less than 20,000, are particularly vulnerable—their poverty rates were 4 percentage points higher than those for children in urban counties with population over 65,000. Their rates of abuse or neglect are 7 percentage points above their urban county counterparts.

Almost half of these rural children depend on Medicaid to access health care, and fewer and fewer providers are willing and able to accept substantially reduced payment rates. Programs to reduce infant mortality, help pregnant and parenting teens complete their education and parent effectively, and provide preschool to vulnerable 4-year olds have all been severely cut or eliminated in recent budgets.

All of us have a vested interest in the well-being of the state’s children who need to be ready to take their places in our communities in the future.  This generation needs our commitment and support to realize their potential as students, citizens, and parents, not an empty decree about school attendance.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell

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