CONCORD, N.H. -- The percentage of New Hampshire children living in poverty rose faster than any other state from 2011 to 2012, knocking the state from its 10-year perch with the nation's lowest child poverty rate, according to census data analyzed by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
The analysis of numbers released last week shows the rate of children younger than 18 living in poverty in New Hampshire rose from 12 percent in 2011 to 15.6 percent last year. Compared to 2007, before the Great Recession, the rate is 75 percent higher.
New Hampshire now ranks 11th in child poverty; North Dakota has the lowest rate at 13.15 while Mississippi's rate of 34.69 is the highest.
Nationally, the rate was at 22.6 percent, or 16.4 million children, according to data from the American Community Survey.
"This is a wake-up call for our state," said Ellen Fineberg, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group, Children's Alliance of New Hampshire. "Children are the future health and well-being of our state."
The reasons aren't immediately clear, but experts said the state, responding to economic pressures during its last budget, made changes to two safety net programs that may have pushed more people below the poverty line:
-- It stopped using the loss of a job by the household's primary earner as a qualification for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That meant 250 families didn't get the TANF benefit.
-- It started using Supplemental Security Income when calculating a family's total income, disqualifying 1,200 households from getting food stamps and reducing the benefit for 420 other households.
Poverty has been growing in the state for a decade. State statistics show 58,229 families received food stamp assistance in January, an 85 percent increase since June 2008. At the same time, the number of families getting TANF benefits fell by 25 percent.
Terry Smith, director of the state's Division of Family Assistance, said the effects of more children in poverty could be devastating.
"Poverty is one of the stressors that impact cognitive functioning long term, especially for younger children," he said. "The other stressors, like abuse of children and homelessness, those things increase in parallel with an increase in poverty."
Fineberg, Smith and Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families for the Carsey Institute, agree it would get worse if Congress approves a farm bill that further cuts the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
"The national story and the New Hampshire story highlight that a lot of kids are in families that are still really struggling to make ends meet," Mattingly said. "Now is not the time to reduce the safety net."