Help doesn't keep pace with children in poverty

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Capital News Service
LANSING – A growing number of children in Michigan live in poverty, but outdated requirements make it difficult for them to get enough cash assistance, according to the Michigan League for Human Services.
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show child poverty in Michigan hit 22.1 percent in 2009, 3.1 percentage points more than in 2008. That means more than half a million children lived in poverty last year.
Many West Michigan counties saw a similar jump. Child poverty in Kent County climbed to 20.7 percent in 2009, a 1.7 points increase from 2008, for example.
The number increased from 14.9 percent to 16.9 percent in Allegan, from 24.1 percent to 24.8 percent in Muskegon and from 8.7 percent to 11.5 percent in Ottawa.
Wayman Britt, assistant Kent County administrator, attributed the increase to a sluggish economy.
He said there’s been loss of jobs in the county primarily in the manufacturing, office furniture and automobile sectors due to the national recession.
For example, Steelcase Inc., a Grand Rapids-based furniture company, has eliminated more then half of its local workforce, he said.
Sue Toman, chief operating officer of the Child and Family Resource Council in Grand Rapids, agreed that the bad economy has forced many parents out of manufacturing jobs.
Replacement jobs in the service sector often pay minimum wage or close to it, she said.
The state has several initiatives to help families with children in poverty, such as the family independence and the federally funded food assistance programs.
“Unfortunately many of these programs aren’t well funded,” said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, director of the Kids Count in Michigan project at the League for Human Services. “Either criteria have become stringent or benefits aren’t adequate to the level of need.”
The league is a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization that works to ensure economic security for low-income residents.
Sharon Parks, president of the organization, said, families must be extremely poor to qualify for the family independence program’s cash assistance to meet basic needs.
In 1993, a single mother with two children could get cash assistance if her income was 20 percent below the poverty level. But the same family had to be 44 percent below the poverty threshold in 2008 to be eligible for aid, according to the league.
That means a parent with two children must earn less than $814 per month to qualify for benefits.
“How are kids being helped who are above that 44 percent level?” Parks said.
Another problem is that the buying power of cash assistance is much less than it was several years ago, according to the league.
In 2003, a family could collect a maximum of $459 per month. In 2008, the cap was $492, which was worth only $341 in 1993 dollars.
Kent County’s Britt said, “We will continue to disqualify more and more people because those standards were based on two to 12 years ago’s income levels.”
Recent research shows long-term poverty can damage children’s health and their social and emotional development.
Zehnder-Merrell said poverty also can cause long-term harm to a child’s ability to graduate from high school, to get a job and to be self-sufficient as an adult.
“They will also become tied to the criminal justice system if they are not able to make a living,” she said.
Meanwhile, local community groups are trying to help children in poverty.
First Steps, a Grand Rapids-based community partnership that works to strengthen and coordinate early childhood services in Kent County, has a children health care access program.
It is intended to improve access to quality health care for children covered by Medicaid, said Amy Turner-Thole, the organization’s communications director.
Foe example, the program makes it easier for children to get treatment from private physicians including more evening hours and same-day medical appointments.
Access of West Michigan, a faith-based group in Grand Rapids, works to link congregational, individual and community resources to eliminate hunger and reduce the impact of poverty in Kent County.
One of the group’s initiatives is to help families in need get food.
The league’s communication director, Judy Putnam, said the eligibility level of the state’s family independence program should be adjusted so more low-income children can get their basic needs met.
“This is the money that allows families to pay rent, utilities and other necessities,” she said. “The eligibility requirements should be updated.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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