When you imagine the face of poverty, what do you see?
Is it a senior citizen forced to chose between buying her prescriptions and filling her oil tank? Or is it a homeless man, panhandling by an intersection?
Those pictures are accurate, but increasingly in Maine, when you are talking about someone who lives in poverty, you are talking about a child. According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, 14.7 percent of Mainers of all ages live below the poverty line, an income of $220 a week or less for a single person. It’s the highest poverty rate in New England, but the younger you go, the worse it looks.
One in five Mainers under the age of 18 (20.9 percent) lives in poverty. The same is true for more than one in four children under the age of 5 (26.9 percent). That means a quarter of all infants, toddlers and preschoolers in the state live in extreme need through no fault of their own.
These are shocking figures. Behind the numbers are children without enough to eat; some without a place to live. The stress of living in poverty at such an early age can leave lifelong scars, just like the ones left by abuse. This is a problem not just for poor children and their parents, but also for our entire society.
Young children are poor not because they lack motivation or because they made bad choices. But even though they are not to blame for their situation, they pay the price.
It often starts with a bad start in school. Children with bad nutrition, who live in disordered households and substandard housing, come to school under stress, not ready to learn. There are exceptions, but typically the poorest students fall behind and stay behind, not because they lack ability but because they are forced to cope with too much.
Don’t believe it? Look at the state’s A-to-F grades for schools around the state. They closely corresponded with the districts’ income levels. The poorest schools got D’s and F’s, and wealthy ones pulled easy A’s.
Children in low-income households may come from loving families and still not get the kind of support they need to thrive. If they don’t have enough to eat, if their parents are too stressed to read with them or check their homework, if they don’t get medical attention and develop chronic health problems, they will have a hard time succeeding. Failure in school predicts a low-income future, and a lifetime of struggle.
There is an active debate going on about the value of social welfare programs and whether government assistance really helps or if it creates a culture of dependency and multigenerational poverty. But regardless of where you stand on that question, no one can believe that young children should take care of themselves. The best way to break the cycle of poverty is by making sure that children — especially children under the age of 5 — are given the support they need to make a healthy start.
Maine does not benefit by cutting programs that feed hungry children. It does not save money by denying their parents health care or housing assistance. It’s not right to expect schools to pick up the pieces of broken lives without enough resources.
This should not be a partisan issue. Policymakers should all agree that these trends are a disgrace to Maine and cannot be allowed to continue. There can be arguments over how best to achieve the goal, but there should be no dispute over the fact that too many of our children are suffering.