Shanna Cox

Robyn Merrill

Parents, business owners, teachers, health care providers, community members — we all have a stake in making sure no child in Maine grows up in poverty, without a home, warm clothing in the winter, or enough food to eat. Living in poverty increases a child’s risk for ill health and educational struggles. Those of us who grow up poor are more likely to earn less, struggle to maintain steady, stable employment, and have chronic health issues.

While the pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted the economic precarity of too many children and families, the issues that drive Maine’s high rates of child poverty existed long before the public health crisis. Of the 33,000 children living in poverty in our state in 2019, over 12,600 children were living in deep poverty, with family incomes below $12,875 for a family of four — less than 50% of the federal poverty level for a family of four.

And poverty disproportionately affects people of color; while approximately 13.5% of white children in Maine live in poverty, over 34.8% of children from Maine’s tribes live in poverty, and over 45.6% of children from Maine’s Black or African American families live in poverty. Where you live also matters; kids living in rural parts of the state are more likely to grow up under the poverty line.

Child poverty is so daunting and destructive it can feel unsolvable. In reality, there are policy solutions within our reach. That is why, three years ago, organizations from different sectors across Maine — business, education, health care, social services, legal aid, faith-based — came together to launch the Invest in Tomorrow initiative, with an aim of cutting child poverty in half and strengthening the workforce over 10 years.

In 2019, we joined forces with the state chamber, private businesses, and the public sector to pass bipartisan legislation that included numerous proposals to increase economic security for children and opportunity for their parents. That legislation created a new annual report that the Department of Health and Human Services will provide to the state Legislature this month. The report will provide data on how children in Maine are faring and how anti-poverty programs are working in our fight to increase economic security and create economic opportunity so families can get ahead.

This report also provides us with an opportunity to hold policymakers and ourselves accountable, and to imagine the changes we can continue to make in our children’s lives, as well as the investments we can make in our current and future workforces.

We can secure access to basic needs for all families. We can create more education and training opportunities. We can target the racial wealth gap and prioritize structural reforms that address generational poverty and historic marginalization. We can ease the financial burdens on poor families by strengthening affordability and improving accessibility to child care and universal preschool, providing access to reliable transportation so people can work, and reforming tax credits that cover all low-income families.

The expanded child tax credit in the American Rescue Plan alone will temporarily cut child poverty in half, helping 21,000 Maine children living in poverty and lifting 10,000 children out of poverty.

The Invest in Tomorrow initiative is guided by data and focused on measurable outcomes. We can use the forthcoming DHHS report to start bending the curve on child poverty. By doing so, we’ll be taking the first steps in a virtuous circle.

Addressing families’ basic needs will create opportunities for parents and caregivers to succeed in the workforce, strengthening our communities, bolstering our economy, and reducing child poverty. Lifting children out of poverty today will, in turn, increase their opportunities, support their growth, and fortify Maine’s future workforce, leading to less child poverty tomorrow.

This is good for kids, good for business, and good for all of us.

Shanna Cox is president and CEO of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Robyn Merrill is executive director of Maine Equal Justice in Augusta.


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