1 in 3 Lewiston kids poor, report says

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More than one out of every three children in Lewiston live in poverty, the highest rate in the state, according to a report released Monday about the status of Maine children.

Statewide 22 percent of Maine children, more than one out of every five, and 17 percent of children under 18 live in poverty, according to the Annie E. Casey’s Foundation’s Maine Kid’s Count report, released Monday by the Maine Children’s Alliance.

Lewiston’s child poverty percentage is 41.68 percent.

“That’s shocking. It’s more than four out of 10,” said Elinor Goldberg, executive vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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Auburn has the second highest percentage of children in poverty, 26.59 percent, and Portland the third, 26.29 percent, according to the report.

The report uses the federal definition of poverty, which is an income of $22,000 or less for a family of four. That’s not enough to buy basic necessities, Goldberg said.

Growing up poor doesn’t doom a child to an unsuccessful life, but poor children are more likely to struggle in school, have health problems or be involved with crime, Goldberg said.

“The frightening thing is that the national projections show it’s going to continue to rise. Unemployment rates are not going to drop for a long time,” she said. That means the number of children growing up poor will continue to rise.

The biggest reason for higher poverty is the bad economy and unemployment, Goldberg said. The point of focusing on poverty is to give information so officials can act, Goldberg said.

There are no easy short-term fixes, but supporting programs like health care and Head Start help ensure “poor kids are not as harmed as they might have been,” she said.

Lewiston-Auburn officials may want to respond by creating a poverty commission “to get a grip on what’s going on, what are the things we can do to help,” Goldberg said.

But Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said Lewiston and Auburn mayors “did that exercise” last summer. “In this economy it’s difficult to implement the initiatives.”

Craven said she was “horrified to see those numbers. I couldn’t imagine that the poverty rate was so high in Lewiston. It’s troubling because the numbers are lagging.”

The report’s numbers come from the American Community Survey, which used three-year averages from 2006-08, before many jobs were shed in the recession. According to the Maine Children’s Alliance, the previous number for child poverty in Lewiston from 2005-07 was higher, 43.8 percent.

Part of the answer, Craven said, “is making sure we start creating jobs in an accelerated manner.” State legislators are discussing job creation bonds that could go to voters. If passed, the bonds would include millions for Lewiston in rail development and clean water projects, she said.

Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert agreed. “We have the two poorest census tracks in the city.” That seems to be synonymous with the report, he said.

Lewiston is a service center community, as is Portland. But Portland has the ocean and more businesses and wealth, Gilbert said.

“We’ve also had a significant refugee immigrant population move in,” Gilbert said. Some of the Bantu and Somali came with little formal education, which makes it harder to seek employment. “Although they do,” he said. “But it’s going to take some time.”

And Lewiston’s manufacturing jobs have been sent overseas, which he blames on Congress. There should be a penalty on companies that get rich by moving jobs overseas to get slave labor, Gilbert said.

“You hear people complain about welfare. Corporate welfare exceeds what social welfare costs. I would love to have good manufacturing jobs.” A proposed Lewiston casino could help with jobs, he said.

Genevieve Lysen of the Maine People’s Alliance in Lewiston called the number “heartbreaking” and said that “parents are struggling to provide for their children.”

Unemployment is higher in Lewiston-Auburn than in Portland and Bangor, she said. “The government, at the local, state and federal levels, must take an active role in putting people back to work,” Lysen said.

Other statewide highlights in the Kids Count report include:

Fewer Maine kids are drinking and smoking marijuana, but more are smoking cigarettes.

In 2007, 39.3 percent of high school students used alcohol, compared to 32.2 percent in 2009. In 2007, 14 percent of high-schoolers smoked. That increased to 18.1 percent in 2009.

In spite of the recession, more children live in families where they have a family doctor. And only 6 percent of Maine children lack health care, half the national rate of 12 percent.

Even though Maine is a poor state, “kids are faring very well,” Goldberg said. “I’d rather raise kids in Maine than other states.”

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