When looking at Michigan’s long economic struggles, the evidence of the impact on children continues to add up year to year.
Reflected in the new Kids Count Data Book, recently released by the Michigan League for Human Services and Michigan’s Children in Lansing, are growing statistics concerning poverty, abuse and neglect.
“The findings show that kids in Montcalm County and across Michigan are still suffering the fallout from our long recession, said Jane Zehnder-Merrell,” the Kids Count in Michigan director at the Michigan League for Human Services. “Poverty in Michigan is as big a threat to our children today as polio was to a previous generation. Fortunately, we can do something about this. We know that public policy can improve children’s social and economic environment.”
According to the report, the percentage of children living in poverty in Montcalm County jumped from 14 percent to 23 percent between 2000 and 2009. The rate of children living in extreme poverty, roughly less than $11,000 a year for a family of four, jumped from 5 percent to 11 percent.
For Carri O’Conner, director of Great Start Collaborative in Montcalm County, these numbers are of great concern.
“Our policies on how we spend our money in Michigan do not always reflect how we care for children,” she said. “Young children need to be a priority in our budget.”
O’Conner pointed to the number of students on the reduced lunch program at area schools as an example of how extreme the situation is.
In 2010, almost half of K-12 public school students (46.5 percent) qualified for free or reduced price lunches, a jump of 36.2 percent from 2006.
“Our free and reduced lunch numbers blaringly show there is a need,” she said. “They are huge numbers and we’ve just continued to see them go up and up.”
According to Michele Corey, vice present for programs at Michigan’s Children, living in poverty leads to many other issues for children aside from reduced lunches.
“Children in poverty often experience hunger, abuse or neglect, extreme stress, depression or anxiety, and other issues impacting their overall health, as well as their ability to learn and grow into successful adults,” she said. “The best public policies must address the whole child from cradle to career, and this data can help guide these policies.”
According to O’Conner, problems with poverty start with the earliest of education.
“The question we have to ask is, what can we do to support education?” O’Conner said. “Preschool is the number one indicator if a child will graduate from high school, live a life of crime or end up in poverty.
When I read all of these numbers, my first question is, how many of those kids had a preschool experience?”
O’Conner said she doesn’t believe the issue is that children are not required to attend preschool, but that affordable pre-schooling is not available to everyone.
“We have 300 4-year-olds who would be eligible for the Great Start Readiness Program,” she said. “But we only have 198 slots available for kids in Montcalm County. We only receive so much funding for the program, so we can only accept so many students. It’s wrong that we have to turn anyone away.”
According to Zehnder-Merrell, recent policy changes are to blame and have negatively impacted kids in Michigan.
“Unfortunately, policymakers have cut family supports aimed at blunting the impact of the economic downturn on kids,” she said.
The report references changes in policy such as reducing the traditional period of unemployment from 26 to 20 week and cutting the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit from 20 percent of the federal credit to 6 percent.
According to the report, the credit has been responsible for pushing 14,000 families Michigan kids out of poverty.
“The impact of high unemployment and declining wages is leaving its mark on a generation of children, she said.
Facts and figures affecting children in Montcalm County
• Children (ages 0-17) made up 24.1 percent of Montcalm County’s population.
Access to health care
• Montcalm County’s rate for Medicaid insured children is 6 percent above the Michigan rate.
• Nearly half of all Montcalm County children are insured by Medicaid.
• County immunization rates are 9.9 percent above the Michigan rate.
Children with special needs
• The number of students enrolled in special education is 1.5 percent above the Michigan rate.
• The rate of children receiving Social Security is 1.9 percent above the Michigan rate.
• Number of children living in poverty is 6.9 percent above the Michigan rate.
• Students receiving free/reduced school lunches is 7.8 percent above the Michigan rate.
Family support programs
• Montcalm County’s Food Assistance Program (food stamps) rate is 3 percent higher than the Michigan rate
• Children with child support owed is 7.4 percent higher than the Michigan rate.
• Fourth grade MEAP scores are 0.4 percent higher than the Michigan rate.
• Eighth grade MEAP scores are 0.5 percent lower than the Michigan rate.
• High School students MME scores are 6.8 percent higher than the Michigan rate.