A disappointing report on child well-being in Maine should be an agenda-setter for the upcoming election.

Maine was ranked 17th from the top among the 50 states, slipping five places since last year, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, released each year by the Children’s Alliance of Maine.

While a stronger economy has improved life for children in other states, Maine children are falling backward in several important areas, including the number of children without health insurance, an increase in the percentage of low-birthweight babies and a lack of improvement in reading scores.

While these reflect problems with health care, education and family structure, they all stem from economic disadvantage, an area in which Maine has not made progress since the financial collapse of 2008, and the beginning of the anti-government LePage administration.

Childhood poverty in Maine has not subsided as the economy has been otherwise improving. Last year, 18.2 percent of children and 21 percent of children under the age of 5 were living under the poverty line.

That matters because the effects of growing up in a low-income household can have lifelong effects on health and education that perpetuate a cycle of generational poverty. One troubling data point in the Kids Count book is the rate of disconnected youth in Maine communities. In Maine, about 6 percent of young people between the ages of 16 and 19 are neither employed nor attending school. That means that in just a few years, there will be thousands of men and women who will not have had the solid foundation they need to start and support a family. It would be much more effective to help them now than it would be after they are struggling to care for children of their own.

All candidates for the Maine Legislature should be prepared to talk about what they plan to do to arrest and reverse these troubling trends. It’s not enough to offer bromides about tough love and self-sufficiency – government is the only entity that can intervene in health care and education in a significant enough way to overcome the negative consequences of childhood poverty.

There’s no mystery about what needs to be done. The only question is whether the people in government will have the resolve to do it.

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