Hardships hit children

Jane Zehnder-Merrell

The Michigan numbers in the just released national KIDS COUNT report reflected  a 36 percent increase in child poverty in the state between 2000 and 2008 and a ranking of 44th (with 1 being the best) for the relatively large percentage of children living in families where no parent has a full-time year-round job. In response to this report, Michigan citizens and legislators might want to review the findings in a recent study about the impact of hard times on children.

Children in families suffering from multiple hardships, defined as inadequate food, inconsistent access to utility service, and unstable housing, sustain long-term harm to their health and well-being, according to the report Healthy Families in Hard Times. Children’s HealthWatch found that each of these hardships elevate the risk of poor health, hospitalizations, iron deficiency anemia, and developmental delay among children in these families. Children with severe hardship were at more than double the risk of developmental delay compared with children in families with none of these material hardships.

The ten-year study found that one-third of low-income families experienced no hardship while the majority (57%) suffered from moderate hardship, and 6 percent sustained severe hardship. Housing insecurity was the most pervasive—affecting roughly two of five low-income families compared with 27 percent with energy insecurity and one in five with food insecurity.

The impact of these hardships is real and profound for the affected children. Children who experience food insecurity were more likely to need special education services, mental health treatment, and remediation for low academic performance.

While the best solution for family economic security is a good job that can provide the income to meet material needs, roughly one-third of the state’s children lived in a family where no parent had a full-time year-round job in 2008. Children cannot wait for the economic engine; they are already on the road.

Until the economy rebounds, many families must depend on public programs to get through the current recession. The researchers found that many eligible families did not participate in available programs, but the health and development outcomes for children in those needy families who did were much better than for those who did not.

So in these hard times instead of cutting programs, curtailing outreach, and limiting access to programs the better approach might be to expand outreach, coordination, and access to programs that mitigate material hardship so that children who have been born during these hard times will have a chance to be ready for the new economy when it arrives.

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