Commentary
10:52 am
Wed August 17, 2011

Children in Poverty

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan has more than half a million kids in families whose incomes are below the poverty level. Half a million. That’s according to reliable figures provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan League for Human Services.

Every year, they bring us something called the Kids Count Data Book, a demographic survey of children’s well-being, funded by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This year’s study shows that almost one in four Michigan kids is poverty-stricken. That’s as of two years ago, and the situation probably worsened last year. That’s more significant than it seems: Poverty-stricken children all too often grow up to be poor, unemployed and sometimes unemployable adults. They seldom get the education they need to be successful in the modern economy.

Additionally, kids who live under economic stress also tend to have more health problems, according to Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Kids Count in Michigan project.

That should bother you even if you have a heart of stone, because society is going to end up paying a tremendous economic as well as human cost as a result. We won’t see the full effect of the recession on our children for years.

And, there are things we could do to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, according to the experts, we seem to be choosing policies guaranteed to do exactly the opposite. Michigan, by the way, isn’t the worst state in the nation when it comes to child poverty, though we are worse than most.

We’ve fallen a few notches to thirtieth out of fifty states. But while child poverty went up nationally by 18 percent since two thousand, it increased in Michigan by a staggering 64 percent.

This, in a state that until recently had a higher standard of living than most. Michigan policy makers can’t be blamed for the national recession. But the Kids Count team are worried that what’s happening in Lansing now is bound to worsen things still. For example, the legislature passed a law limiting people to four years of eligibility for welfare assistance -- in their lifetimes.

You can argue about the extent to which the long-term unemployed are responsible for their situation. But their children don’t deserve blame. And according to the Michigan League, lots of the people who will be kicked off, starting in October, are kids whose average age is seven.

And how their parents supposed to find work? There are currently about eight unemployed  looking for work for every job, and few of those on welfare are surgeons, computer experts or others whose skills are in demand.

Zehnder-Merrill noted that the legislature did sock a few hundred million away in a rainy day fund, in case revenues run low.

But she said they’d missed the fact that the child poverty crisis means it‘s raining now.

I‘d say that by not acting to help these kids, we are inviting a hurricane to follow. In business terms, throwing children off welfare may be a good move to make the immediate bottom line look better.

But it means adopting a strategy of not investing in the long-term future. Which means that we may be choosing not to have one.