A group that includes the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, schools, charities, and progressive and public health advocacy nonprofits has vowed to work toward cutting child poverty in half in Maine over the next decade.

Invest in Tomorrow, which has been meeting for about a year, unveiled a 27-page report Wednesday that lays out broad goals to reduce childhood poverty. The goals include attacking hunger and improving health care, transportation, education and child care programs, and promoting solutions that will help transition people to employment.

Maine’s poverty level for children is 13.1 percent, or about 33,000 children, who live below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, defined as $20,780 for a family of three. Compared with the United States, Maine ranks low in childhood poverty. Maine had the ninth-best childhood poverty rate in the nation in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. States such as South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana had childhood poverty rates ranging from 21 percent to 28 percent.

The Invest in Tomorrow report notes that with Maine’s stagnant and aging population, having children grow up in poverty will lead to worsening workforce shortages in the coming decades.

“Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be out of the workforce when they are adults,” said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “The common message from businesses across the state is there’s a deep concern with our workforce challenges.”

Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group that also is leading the effort, said the group plans to turn talk into action.

Specific proposals will be forthcoming, Merrill said.

“We are not just going to convene community meetings and not do anything about it. We are going to turn these actions into results – common-sense solutions that we can all get behind,” Merrill said.

Merrill said expanding Medicaid to more low-income adults, which is expected to happen when Gov.-elect Janet Mills assumes office in January, will help alleviate childhood poverty, as will minimum wage increases. In January, the minimum wage will go up to $11 per hour and is expected to reach $12 per hour by 2020. But more needs to be done, Merrill said.

“Children growing up in poverty who are hungry are significantly more likely to receive special education services, to repeat a grade in school and to have received mental health counseling than at-risk-for-hunger or not-hungry children,” the report said. “The impact of hunger can have lifelong consequences for children as they move into adulthood.

“Children and families must be able to meet their basic needs and have steady, gainful, and sustainable employment to thrive.”

The LePage administration tightened Medicaid eligibility and slashed public assistance programs, but Mills and Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate are expected to consider reversing some LePage-era cutbacks to the public safety net.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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