Sobering news on N.C. children

A Mecklenburg family waits in line to get into Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte in this July 2014 file photo
A Mecklenburg family waits in line to get into Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte in this July 2014 file photo

From Laila A. Bell, director of research and data at NC Child:

This week brought a sobering truth about North Carolina children that affects their future and ours: the number of children growing up poor is increasing in spite of the modest economic recovery taking place around them.

Poverty and economic hardship fundamentally alter children’s developing brains, bodies and life trajectories, making it harder for them to succeed in school, achieve and maintain good health, or to climb into the middle class as an adult.

When our children fail, we fall behind as a state.

The 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book, released recently by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows North Carolina lost ground since 2008:

▪  More than 140,000 children have fallen into poverty.

▪  One in three children lives in a family that struggles to afford housing.

▪  One in three children has parents who lack secure employment.

Children are raised in families and communities. Their neighborhoods are a critical factor in shaping their current and future well-being. Some communities are thick with resources that help enrich children’s lives and nurture future success.

Others, however, are flattened under the weight of concentrated poverty. These neighborhoods create challenges that undermine families’ best efforts to support the healthy growth and development of their children. In these neighborhoods fresh produce and healthy food are limited; schools are often overcrowded and underserved; and recreation – like libraries or safe outdoor spaces that encourage exercise and play – is difficult to come by.

Changing these inequities requires recognition that we all have a responsibility for raising the next generation to be healthy, well-educated and productive.

Unfortunately, instead of investing in children and families, the North Carolina General Assembly has been slowly divesting from programs and policies that enhance their well-being. In 2014, the state Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit were allowed to sunset. Changes to the child care subsidy program will leave the families of 6,000 school-aged children without access to high-quality child care by October of this year, unless the legislature agrees to restore access. The health and economic security of more than 120,000 low-wage parents is at risk in the insurance coverage gap due to politics surrounding Medicaid expansion.

The Data Book reveals a way forward on these issues. It shows North Carolina children made important gains in education and health thanks to intentional public investments that have expanded children’s access to health insurance, enhanced child safety regulations and expanded evidence-based prevention. As a result, our children are less likely to die before their 18th birthday, to drop out of high school or to become pregnant teens.

To lift children out of poverty and improve the economic conditions of neighborhoods, we must invest in proven strategies that help parents enter and stay on the job and mitigate the developmental damage caused by poverty. We should adopt policies like restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit, restoring and expanding child care subsidies, and increasing investment in high-quality early care and education.

North Carolina cannot afford to write off the futures of 1.1 million low-income children and youth. Their fate foretells our own.