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Child Advocates Warn of Economic Harm to Kids

Speaking in Hartford they said child poverty rates are rising and could have longterm and lasting effects.

Connecticut has become a national model for how states and the federal government can combat increases in child poverty rates resulting from the Great Recession. But getting other governments and politicians to heed the state’s message and the example it has set continues to be a challenge, child advocates said Thursday at a legislative hearing in Hartford.

“You all in Connecticut are a model of what we as a nation should consider,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a Washington D.C.-based bipartisan advocacy group that seeks to make children and families a priority in federal policy and budgeting decisions. “You all are having this cross-cutting conversation about kids.”

Lesley was the keynote speaker before the General Assembly's Task Force on Children in the Recession, established several years ago to find ways to keep kids from falling into poverty as a result of the recession and the ongoing economic downturn.

While Lesley appeared before the committee to update it on national issues affecting children and poverty, he also lauded the state for being one of the few in the country to deal with childhood poverty head-on. 

The task force was created in June of 2009 and Connecticut was the first state to create such an entity. Throughout 2010 and the first part of 2011 the task force collected data and testimony to determine how the recession had affected the state’s children.

Based on public hearings the task force held, the legislature in 2010 passed a bill, which then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed, requiring a unified government response to children in poverty anytime the state’s unemployment rate reaches 8 percent or higher. The law also requires the streamlining of services for the poor to improve the delivery of services and mandates that state agencies do all they can to get federal funds to help Connecticut families affected by unemployment.

Thursday’s task force meeting was called to hear updates from child and family advocates on what’s been happening on a state and national level economically that might impact children.

On the federal level “it’s been a difficult road in the last year, particularly for kids,” Lesley said. Between 2007 and 2010, three million more children nationally fell into poverty, he said. Prior to 2007, 18 percent of all U.S. children lived at or below federal poverty limits. After 2010, he said, that number increased to 22 percent.

In Connecticut, he said, 1 in 10 children live in a home where a parent is unemployed, meaning 80,000 children in this state have at least one parent who has lost a job. As of 2008, he added, nearly half of all foreclosures in this state were in households that have kids. A foreclosure on a family home impacts a child’s education, relationships and even health, he said.

For instance, for every 1 percent increase in foreclosures there is a corresponding 3-4 percent increase in the number of childhood emergency room trauma visits, he added, especially visits to treat head traumas.

“The impact on kids is enormous,” Lesley said. “It affects the whole child.”

His agency, he added, is also concerned about cuts in services for children that could be made by the so-called Super Committee that Congress appointed recently to determine where to cut as much as $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. First Focus, he said, realizes that some cuts are likely in services for children and will lobby the Super Committee to limit them.

“There are some really negative things that might happen. It’s all about choices and there are certain things that should be cut in the federal budget, things that need to be changed, but it does not make sense to shortchange the next generation,” he said. “We’re certainly hoping kids will not be harmed dramatically in that process, but we think this moment is critical in our nation. We do not want to see a lost generation. We can’t fix it once a child has gone through their life” in poverty.

The task force also heard a report from representatives of Connecticut Voices for Children, who said the long economic downturn and high unemployment rate in Connecticut – currently holding steady at about 9.1 percent – are keeping families and children in poverty.

Jamey Bell, the group’s executive director, said there’s a direct correlation between high unemployment rates and impacts on children.

“Economic development, as it affects jobs, is a children’s issue. Budget and tax policy, as it affects jobs, is a children’s issue.”

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