AUGUSTA — A growing number of Maine children are living in poverty, and Lewiston continues to be among the most impoverished cities in Maine, according to statistics from the Maine Children's Alliance.
The numbers are not new but they illustrate the importance of public resources — state programs, schools, police and nonprofit programs, Maine Children's Alliance research director Claire Berkowitz said Monday.
Statewide, 19 percent of Maine children live in poverty, compared to the national rate of 23 percent, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2013 Kids Count Data Book released Monday. In that report, Maine ranked 13th out of 50 states for the overall score. Maine also ranked first in child health and sixth in the well-being of families and communities.
"Maine leads the nation in child health and we are proud of that ranking," said Ned McCann, executive director of Maine Children's Alliance, which produces the state-level Kids Count reports. Good public policy coupled with hard work at the community level has provided Maine children with health insurance and access to care, McCann said.
But Maine ranks 20th in education and economic well-being, with nearly one in five children living in poverty.
Maine is better off than the nation, but every year the poverty rate goes up, Berkowitz said. In 2005, the rate was 17 percent. The report defines poverty as a family of two adults and two children with an annual income below $22,811.
Lewiston's poverty rate is 30.8 percent for children under age 18, while Auburn's is 18.2 percent and Androscoggin County is 24.3, according to the report and Berkowitz.
“Poverty puts kids at risk for a lot of things: poor academic achievement, health issues, mental health, crime. It's not a good condition to grow up in,” Berkowitz said.
Poverty numbers get worse for Lewiston's youngest children and those living in poor downtown neighborhoods.
The poverty rate for ages birth to five in Lewiston is 43.3 percent, compared to 21.4 percent statewide, Berkowitz said.
Another statistic looks at children living in “concentrated poverty,” or neighborhoods where 30 percent or more of residents are poor.
Auburn has no concentrated poverty pockets, Berkowitz said. Statewide, 9,000 children live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and Lewiston has a third — or 2,943 children — living in downtown, concentrated poverty neighborhoods, Berkowitz said. Portland also has high concentrations of poor neighborhoods.
High concentration of poverty can be “toxic” to children because it can be more difficult for children surrounded by poverty to escape it. They're more likely to be exposed to crime, violence, have physical and mental health problems, not have quality child care or be able to play outdoors if parents feel it's unsafe.
Community resources that intervene is part of the solution, Berkowitz said.
They include, “investing in early childhood education, stimulating preschool public programs, and making sure there is quality child care available to families,” he said.
Lewiston has a downtown Androscoggin Head Start program which offers a “holistic” program for children and parents. Lewiston public schools offer free preschool programs for 4-year-old children.
A nonprofit Tree Street Youth Center on Birch Street offers a drop-in spot for children to get help with school work and participate in sports, dance and the arts.
The Lewiston Police Department has four officers assigned to community work at the 292 Bates St. substation.
The substation is “wide open,” Sgt. Rob Ullrich said. “Kids come in all the time to talk to us.”
Community officers have a connection with Head Start. Officers patrol on bicycles instead of cruisers. “It's approachability,” Ullrich said.
Resource officers attend biweekly coffee meetings with parents and children at the Hillview Housing project. They take children on summer outings, to Reid State Park or the Gray Animal Farm. Some youth would otherwise never leave the city, he said. In the last two years, Lewiston police has participated in a “Badges for Baseball” program where youth from subsidized housing learn to play baseball in Orono.
Overall, community officers act as counselors, mentors and positive role models. “Some of these kids don't have fathers,” Ullrich said.
That's the kind of work that needs to happen, Berkowitz said. Meanwhile on the state level, Advocates for Children is pushing "to reinstate budget cuts with Head Start home visiting and child care vouchers for families so more kids can be served."