Why kids count

Added February 19th, 2015 by Jane Zehnder-Merrell | Email This Entry Email This Entry
Jane Zehnder-Merrell

Recent news reports celebrate the decline in the unemployment rate and the quickened tempo of the recovery. But four years into the recovery, Michigan’s child poverty rates remain consistently high.

In 2013, one of every four children in Michigan lived in a family with income below the federal poverty level (roughly $18,800 for a single-parent family of three and $23,600 for a two-parent family of four), according to the latest Kids Count in Michigan Data Book, released today.

It’s not just the economy that results in these high levels of child poverty. State and federal policies shape the social and economic environment in our communities. Full-time minimum wage yearly earnings at the level passed last year by the Michigan Legislature ($8.15 an hour) leaves a family of three almost $2,000 below the poverty level and a family of four by almost $7,000. Proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would at least lift a family of three above the 2013 poverty level.

The over half-million Michigan children living in financially strapped families are likely to face severe disadvantages not only during childhood but also during adulthood, as documented by a substantial body of research. Children who spend extended periods in poverty are more likely to be troubled by poor health and to attain minimal education as adults. They will not be equipped to fill the jobs that require postsecondary skills and training.

The 2015 Kids Count report highlights the problem areas for children and suggests state policy changes. For example, strengthening the safety net programs, including Food Assistance Program and the child care subsidy, would shield children from some the economic impact of the sluggish recovery.

Voting ‘yes’ May 5 on the road funding package will trigger the reinstatement of  the state Earned Income Tax Credit to 20% of the federal credit, which will help more than 1 million Michigan children in working families.

State policies are currently restricting, rather than expanding, access to families in need. Increased access to the child care subsidy would help both children and parents. A recent survey revealed that one of every eight parents in Michigan’s low-income families with young children reported changing, quitting or not taking a job due to child care constraints.

High-quality child care enhances child development during the critical early years so why would we curtail access by depressing the payment structure to roughly half the market rate in the state’s child care subsidy program? We want parents to work to support their families but low-wage workers can ill afford the average monthly cost of roughly $500 for full-time child care for a preschooler in Michigan. It represents over 40% of gross earnings from a full-time minimum wage job.

As Michigan retools for the 21st century, it will need to count on the next generation, and their future depends on their well-being today.

— Jane Zehnder-Merrell

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