The Maine Children's Alliance is not a group of bleeding-heart liberals cooking the books to reach questionable conclusions about a controversial path. The MCA is an organization devoted to measuring what is, not making recommendations. Its leadership includes representatives of the University of New England, The Bangor Daily News, the AFL/CIO, Unum, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Department of Labor, Kennebec Savings Bank, Barbara Bush Children's Hospital, Webber Energy Fuels, and so on. The Maine Children's Alliance is comprised of the most stable elements in our society, elements not prone to hysteria. When it speaks we should listen.
What it is saying scary. In the 2010 issue of Maine Kids Count we learn that in 2007-2008 16.5% of children under 18 in Maine were living in poverty. For children under age 5 it was worse - 21.8%, higher than the national average. In Cumberland County "only" one in 8 kids is in poverty - in Washington County it's over one in four. About 7% of all kids in the State were living in families with less than half of what it takes to be in poverty. In 2008 nearly one in 20 children in Maine became involved with the juvenile justice system. One in 14 babies born in Maine in 2006 and 2007 was born to an unmarried teenage mother, a trend that is increasing. In 2008 one out of 12 Maine teens between ages 16 and 19 was neither employed nor in school.
Here are some more figures. 38% of Maine children under 18 are living in families in which the total income is below 200% of the official poverty level, a level that itself almost always dooms a family to poverty. A full time minimum wage job in Maine pays "well under" half a livable wage for Maine. 7.2% of Maine children ages 0-17 have emotional, developmental or behavioral problems for which they need treatment or counseling. For the first time since 1997 cigarette smoking among children is increasing.
So. We can look at this as a crisis in and of itself - children are precious, and we are ignoring their desperate needs. Or we can look at this as a predictor of tomorrow's problems - common sense suggests that troubled, unfocused, undisciplined children are likely to become troubled, unfocused, undisciplined adults, and troubled, unfocused, undisciplined adults are more likely to engage in crime, less likely to hold steady jobs. In fact, that problem is even worse than the numbers suggest. Children in foster care, considered not at risk, are significantly more likely to become adults who abuse or neglect their own children or who engage in crime, than are children who grow up with biological or adoptive parents who treat them well. The Maine Children's Alliance looks at the kids on the street - we need to be concerned about the kids off the street as well. And a LOT of children are in foster care in Maine.
The whole system is broken.
Someone recently asked me what I intend to do about our kids. I didn't have an answer for him and I still don't. What is obvious is that something
needs to be done.
No, that's wrong. This is the canary in the coal mine telling us that the entire mine is unsafe. Our entire system is failing us, and any hope we have of helping our children of today, of raising more productive adults of tomorrow depends on connecting a lot of dots and fixing a lot of problems.
As a start we need to address poverty. What the numbers show is that "jobs" is a cliché that means nothing. Not having a job at all means something, but having a full-time job in Maine too often means not having enough to feed and clothe a family. We need to stop selling out to corporations promising "jobs" unless and until we know what those jobs are going to be. We need to ensure that families have at least the minimum resources necessary, whether that be through employment or a safety net..
We need to stop pretending, even for a minute, that teaching abstinence in public schools is a substitute for teaching and making available more effective birth control. And unless and until Maine comes up with an immediate and effective solution to the number of babies born and living in poverty, and the problem of young adults who spend the rest of their lives in poverty as a result of becoming parents too early, we need to make abortion available for those pregnant girls who want to have an abortion.
We need to help adults become "better" parents. "Better" is intentionally in quotation marks, because I am well aware that what constitutes a "good" parent, never mind "better," is a loaded issue subject to a great deal of disagreement. At minimum, we need to help parents for whom addiction is creating safety issues for children. We need to teach adults who had no role modeling when they were growing up what being a caring parent looks like. We need to help adults get under control rage, fear, hatred, serious impatience, feelings of inadequacy, and other emotional challenges to being a positive parent.
We need to make education mean something. Education aimed at getting schools good results on standardized tests is not education. Schools with large numbers of non-traditional students will never ever meet arbitrary standards. Unconventional students forced into a curriculum designed for an average or an optimal are going to fail. Schools that do not make education relevant or challenging or at least interesting are going to have to devote resources they don't have to keeping order in the rooms and halls, and then hope that kids the law says are supposed to be in school drop out so that the school doesn't have to deal with them anymore.
And we need to provide non-educational services to kids who need them. We need to help kids with ADHD, with dyslexia, with high anxiety, with medical issues, with dysfunctional families, with addictions they were born with, etcetera. These kids have worlds of potential they will never realize, and we as a society will never get the benefit of.
For far too long we as a society have been saying how important children are even as we ignore problems too big to miss, too serious to not be obsessed about. Every day is a crisis for children; today is a crisis. If children matter to you you should vote for candidates to whom children matter.
I wish I had a simple solution to offer but I don't. I have the awareness that this is a systemic problem demanding systemic solutions, and the desire to do something about it. I am prepared to look at all areas of our society to see how they affect children and families, and bills likely to make the problems worse are extremely unlikely to get my support. I am a candidate to whom children matter.
And if children don't matter to you but dollars and cents do you should be aware that Maine is spending $44,000/ year/ person to lock up troubled kids who become really troubled adults. And people who just get locked up go back to jail again and again. Education is cheaper; aid to families is cheaper; treatment for addicts is cheaper than $44,000/year for warehousing. And when the kids we've helped become taxpayers rather than inmates the money we spent on making them stabler will come back to us, with a profit. If nothing else moves you you can fall back on it being financially shrewd to invest in the well-being of children.
Maine needs to save our children!
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