The Bulletin (Pennsylvania), June 6, 2008: Child Poverty On The Rise

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By: Erin Maguire , The Bulletin

Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), a Philadelphia-based children’s welfare advocacy group, cited in its 2008 report, The Bottom Line is Children, that the federal government’s investment in children has declined by 10 percent over the past five years. PCCY, in its examination of local child poverty statistics, found that 168,718 children in the five-county region are living in poverty, a 25,016 increase since 2004.

The government defines the poverty line as an annual income of $20,650 for a family of four. Alisa Simon, PCCY health policy director, said, “Even if a family makes double that amount, many of us would still consider those children as living in poverty. Tens of thousands of children are living in poverty besides those living at the federal level.”

While all five Philadelphia-area counties saw an increase in child poverty, the percentage increase for suburban counties was the most dramatic. Bucks county child poverty increased by 133.2 percent.

Ms. Simon said, “The percent increase is higher in the suburbs because we’re talking about smaller numbers.” The majority of the region’s impoverished children still live in Philadelphia.

Ms. Simon said that as the country continues to experience economic turmoil, child poverty will rise – unless government funding increases – because “the factors in the larger economy influence children.” She relayed one phone call she received last week from a parent who didn’t pay her mortgage because she needed to buy a prescription for her child.

One factor that contributes to child poverty is what Ms. Simon calls the “squeezing out of the middle class.” While there has been recent job growth in Pennsylvania, it has been in low-wage jobs. Wal-Mart, for example, is Pennsylvania’s largest employer.

Another factor is the high cost of child care. The average annual cost for daycare for two children in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region is $19,645.

Most families eligible for a child care subsidy through the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare-sponsored Child Care Works program pay between $5 and $25 each week for their child care. “The family only has one co-payment, regardless of how many children they have in care. The state pays the rest, usually about $75 to $95 a week per child,” the department reports.

Christie Balka, director of child care and budget for PCCY, said the Child Care Works program “ensures that children have access to child care and obtain the skills they need to enter kindergarten. It also enables their parents to go into the workforce.” The problem is the waiting list for the program has fluctuated from 8,400 to 12,500 in the past 12 months.

As of May 28, PCCY reported that Delaware County experienced the most significant hike in the wait list, rising from 418 to 1,024 children between December 2006 and March 2008. As of April, the waiting period between the initial application and acceptance into the program is 127 days in Delaware County. It is 121 days in Philadelphia and 116, 105 and 65 days in Montgomery, Bucks and Chester counties respectively.

In addition to child care, PCCY also acts as an advocate for an increase in the availability of food stamps, a measure which was part of the massive Farm Bill recently vetoed by President Bush, but then overridden by the House on May 21.

PCCY also hopes for the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which offers free and reduced cost health insurance to 26,377 Philadelphia children. A reauthorization of CHIP was vetoed last year with no veto override, but the U.S. Congress funded CHIP this year and will look at the possibility of reauthorization again this fall.

The approval of Gov. Edward Rendell’s 2008-09 Proposed Executive Budget by its June 30 deadline is number one on PCCY’s wish list. Part of the budget would increase Child Care Works by $6.9 million, with the potential addition of $9 million via an amendment by Rep. Tony Payton (D-Philadelphia), and provide $291 million over six years to underfunded school districts, $70 million of which Philadelphia would see immediately.

By focusing on child care and education, PCCY thinks child poverty could decrease. Ms. Simon cited a study from the High/Scope Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., which showed that for every $1 invested in pre-kindergarten education, taxpayers save $17 in remedial education, welfare, crime and other costs.

Affirming the need to fund education, Ms. Balka said, “Students do better in schools with better funding, smaller classes and better trained teachers.” The hope would be that better funded schools would produce better students who could then meaningfully contribute to the workforce.

Ms. Balka said the approval of Mr. Rendell’s budget would be “absolutely terrific.” She said the employees of PCCY are “all very excited at the prospect of this becoming a reality.” Ms. Balka said Shelly Yanoff, PCCY executive director, thinks Mr. Rendell’s budget proposal is “the opportunity of a generation, the best opportunity since the 1970’s.”

Ms. Simon expressed the sentiments of PCCY, “The bottom line is: children in Philadelphia need support. The question is: ‘Will the federal and state government step up to the plate to meet those needs?'”

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