The Grand Rapids Press, January 3, 2008: Tackle Poverty

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Reducing the number of children living in poverty is one of the best long- term investments the state can make in its future. Lawmakers need to aggressively tackle the problem. A recent report about the state of children in Michigan emphasizes that when it comes to improving their well-being, there is much work to do to increase the odds of their success in school and later in life.

The long-term negative effects of children living in poverty run the gamut from poor health to low wages. The state pays a heavy price. Better educated people usually make more money and are less likely to become a drain on the state.

Kids Count in Michigan is a collaborative project of the Michigan League for Human Services and Michigan’s Children. The report profiled child well-being in the state’s 83 counties, examining 18 areas set by Healthy People 2010, a federally led initiative to advance health and well-being. The report found poverty is up 24 percent in the state since 2000-2001, based on students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches. In Kent County, poverty jumped from 9.1 percent in 2000 to 16.1 percent in 2006, for children ages 5 to 17.

With that as a backdrop, the survey also showed that rates worsened in child abuse and neglect, low birth-weight babies, overweight high school students and revealed too few youth engaged in vigorous regular exercise. But the news was not all bad. Teen binge drinking, smoking and pregnancy declined. Substantially more toddlers are getting immunized and nearly half as many children ages 1-6 tested positive for lead poison.

While Michigan made improvements in 14 of the 18 areas, in eight of the 14, improvement was minimal — 10 percent or less between 2000 and 2005. For example, the infant mortality rate was 8 deaths per 1,000 births in 2005. That was only a 4 percent improvement over the five years. This issue deserves constant attention from the state and Kent County, which saw its rate climb from 7.7 percent in 2000 to 8.2 percent in 2005.

Education is the best shot for breaking the cycle of poverty. State lawmakers have taken some steps in education reform to help prepare kids for the global job market. Students have to master a tougher high school curriculum to graduate and the state scholarship program has been expanded. But raising standards won’t do the job in and of itself. That’s clear when 489 Michigan high schools failed to meet the annual progress required under federal law.

There needs to be money to assist schools with tutoring and remedial classes for students who struggle with the new requirements, as well as teacher development. Expanding access to Head Start is also important. According to 2005-06 Census data, only 26 percent of Michigan adults aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, ranking Michigan 36th among the states. Just 36 percent of adults 25 to 54 have associate’s degrees, ranking 31st among states.

Those are troubling statistics in this new economy, when there’s no sign of Michigan emerging from its seven-year economic spiral. Action, not lip-service is needed from lawmakers. Childhood poverty is a tragedy and a societal scourge. Finding solutions is in everyone’s best interest, children first of all.

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