Good public policy means putting our kids first

Economists say there’s a recovery under way, yet the effects of the Great Recession continue to impact Upper Peninsula children and their families, according to latest Kids Count in Michigan Data Book. In 2010 nearly 13,000 UP children under age 18 were impoverished a 20 percent jump since 2005.

In Marquette County, almost 2,000 children lived in a family with income under the poverty level ($18,000 for a family of three). That represents 16 percent of the county’s children — less than the statewide rate of 23.5 percent and the Upper Peninsula rate of 21.5 percent.

The good news is that, overall, children in Marquette County are faring better than children in most counties. Of 82 counties (Keweenaw was excluded as it lacked rankings for more than one of 13 indicators), Marquette County ranked 12th best for overall child well-being. Ottawa, Livingston and Clinton counties are the top three, respectively, while Clare, Roscommon and Lake counties were last.

Marquette County was third-best in the state on two indicators: teen births (15-19) and proficiency in the Michigan Merit Exam for high school reading.

There was an average of 35 births to teens a year in Marquette County from 2008 to 2010. That’s a rate of 13.1 births per 1,000 teens, far below the statewide average of 31.9 births per 1,000 teens.

And Marquette County high school students fared well in reading with a third of local students considered not proficient in reading, dramatically better than the statewide average of nearly half of students considered not proficient in reading.

Despite the favorable rankings, some other areas of child well-being worsened considerably. About 15 Marquette County children per 1,000 were confirmed victims of abuse and neglect, with the statewide rate about 14 per 1,000. That represented a 61 percent increase in child maltreatment between 2005 and 2011.

In addition, Marquette lost ground in the area of students not graduating on time, rising from roughly one in eight students in 2007 to one in five in 2011.

Statewide, the largest changes in child well-being generally reflected worsening trends in economic security: child poverty increased by 28 percent, young children eligible for the Food Assistance Program rose by 55 percent, students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch climbed by 33 percent.

Sadly, rising poverty translates into rising neglect, and confirmed victims of abuse/neglect also rose by 28 percent.

Those trends were also reflected in the region. Economic security slipped for children across the Upper Peninsula, with a 20 percent increase in child poverty, 28 percent increase in young children eligible for food assistance and 21 percent jump in students eligible for free and reduced price lunches. Across the Peninsula, confirmed victims of abuse and neglect jumped 25 percent.

These numbers do not have to be accepted as inevitable. There are clear actions steps we can take. Options for state policymakers include the following:

  • Programs should be maintained to help families withstand the weak economic recovery, including restoring unemployment insurance benefits and indexing them for inflation.
  • The state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families should be restored as more than 100,000 children lived in families lifted above poverty by the federal EITC and Child Tax Credit.
  • Raising the eligibility and adjusting the sliding scale for the child-care subsidy would help more low-income working parents afford child care. The average cost for full-time child care for one preschool child consumes over 40 percent of full-time minimum wage earnings.
  • State investment in primary prevention of child abuse and neglect and early childhood care and education could have an impact on many children.
  • Opportunities for education could be improved through reducing class size in early grades, providing hiring and retention incentives to attract and keep teachers in schools with many low-performing students.
  • The impact of school choice, magnet and charter schools on the students they serve as well on students in surrounding schools should be evaluated.

Michigan cannot and should not ignore the well-being of its children if it wants to expand its educated workforce to compete for the well-paid jobs of the 21st century. Most can agree that we want Michigan to be the comeback state. We must start at the beginning, with our kids.

Editor’s note: Jane Zehnder-Merrell is director of the Kids Count in Michigan Project at the Michigan League for Public Policy.