Rocky Mountain News, June 14, 2008: Turning poverty numbers around

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By Barbara O’Brien

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy embarked on a tour to highlight the devastating impact of poverty in our nation. Last week, while we marked the June 6 40th anniversary of RFK’s death, Colorado also came face-to-face with poverty in our state.

The Colorado Children’s Campaign has just released Kids Count!, an annual report on the status of children. This year, Kids Count! documented and analyzed an alarming increase in childhood poverty.

From 2000 to 2006, there was a 73 percent increase in the number of Colorado children living in poverty – the largest increase in the country.

Imagine being a single parent with a child, trying to get by on $14,000 a year, or a family of four living on $21,200. That’s what it means to “live in poverty” in Colorado.

About 180,000 Colorado children live in desperate economic conditions, and the experience could have a lasting effect on their lives. The increase is across racial and ethnic lines, and is urban, suburban and rural. There is no simple cause and no simple solution.

Children living in poverty are more likely to fall behind and stay behind in school, and to drop out. They are more likely to be hospitalized for treatable diseases. Colorado ranks last in the nation for the percentage of poor children who are uninsured. And poor kids are seven times more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect. There is a very high human cost to childhood poverty.

There is also a high economic cost. Katherine Gold, CEO of GoldBug, a Colorado-based company said, “Poverty is estimated to cost Colorado’s economy $6.8 billion each year in lost wages, the cost of crime, and the cost of health care . . . a commitment to poverty reduction should be viewed as an investment that generates both billions of dollars of returns and improvements to lives.”

We know we can do better. While Colorado’s child poverty rate was increasing, our neighboring states of New Mexico and Wyoming were decreasing their child poverty rates.

Childhood poverty is a barrier to achieving the “Colorado Promise.” The foundation of an anti-poverty strategy is education. Education is a long-term investment, but without it we will have a generation of Colorado residents who can’t get the skilled jobs they will need to be self-sufficient and to raise their families in stable environments. I’m proud that the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter has an ambitious agenda under way to break down those barriers and address the corrosive effects of poverty on kids:

* More low-income young children will get off to a good start because of the expansion of the Colorado Preschool Program and full-day kindergarten.

* More middle and high school students will receive help planning their path toward post-secondary vocational training or education because of the establishment of the Colorado Counselor Corps.

* More low-income children will receive regular medical care through the expansion of the Child Health Plan and Medicaid, with mental health benefits being strengthened in the Child Health Plan.

* And if the voters pass Gov. Ritter’s proposal to increase funding for higher education scholarships, more students will know they can follow their dreams of a career.

* Finally, the governor is committed to reforming the child welfare system so that Colorado’s most vulnerable children, very often children in poverty, can be safe and protected.

These are first steps. Government cannot do it alone. The challenge is so large that Colorado will have to pull together to address it. Churches, communities, businesses, nonprofits, schools, and local and state governments will need to find a way they can help reverse this trend. The benefits of better education, better health care, better jobs and safer neighborhoods will lift everyone. The cost of doing nothing is unacceptable.

Barbara O’Brien is Colorado’s lieutenant governor.

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