For more than a decade, New Hampshire enjoyed the lowest child poverty rate in the country. But, according to a new report from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, the Granite State now can claim a new best: The rate of children younger than 18 living in poverty rose from 12 percent to 15.6 percent, a rate faster than any other state from 2011 to 2012.
Some food for thought: Compared to 2007, this latest rate is 75 percent higher; Nationally, the rate was 22.6 percent -- that's 16.4 million children(!); According to these latest figures, New Hampshire now ranks 11th in the country -- North Dakota has the lowest (13.15), Mississippi the highest (34.69).
"The poverty rate is still very high by historical standards," Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Bloomberg News. "The good news is that it is likely to decline as the economy recovers over the next decade. The bad news is that it's unlikely to get back to its 2007 level ... until the middle of the next decade...."
The Carsey Institute's director of research on vulnerable families, Beth Mattingly, told New Hampshire Public Radio that there's no obvious reasons for the sudden increase.
"What demographic characteristics of our state may have changed? Are people employed less? Obviously, on average, there's more people in poverty, but overall are people earning less? We're going to look at the full demographic picture to see what we can figure out," Mattingly said.
How about a little more context? Regionally, New Hampshire's rate increase is still striking, but it places the state on par with it's counterparts. Vermont's and Massachusetts' rates are at 15 percent, a small decline from the Green Mountain State's high of 17 percent in 2010, while the Bay State seems to be holding steady. Maine has the highest (21 percent).
"These are shocking figures," The Portland Press Herald (Maine) editorial board wrote in a recent editorial. "Behind the numbers are children without enough to eat; some without a place to live. The stress of living in poverty at such an early age can leave lifelong scars, just like the ones left by abuse. This is a problem not just for poor children and their parents, but also for our entire society. ... It often starts with a bad start in school. Children with bad nutrition, who live in disordered households and substandard housing, come to school under stress, not ready to learn. There are exceptions, but typically the poorest students fall behind and stay behind, not because they lack ability but because they are forced to cope with too much."
Here in Vermont, we do a good job offering reduced and/or free meals to students in need, not only through the school year but the summer, too. While cuts are being made to health and human services, lawmakers continue to try and shield the state's most vulnerable from those tough choices.
While the exact causes for New Hampshire's troubles aren't immediately clear, we think it's safe to say there's a correlation to budget cuts, especially changes in statewide "safety net programs" that pushed more families below the poverty line.
"This is a wake-up call for our state," Ellen Fineberg, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Children's Alliance of New Hampshire, told the Associated Press. "Children are the future health and well-being of our state."
While the nation waits and watches to see what Washington lawmakers' next move will be (in terms of crafting a working budget), we implore lawmakers in Vermont and the rest of the region to carefully consider any future changes and cuts to states' budgets. The innocent cannot be forced to bear the brunt of what is sure to be a few more years of "tough decisions."
Perhaps our colleagues at the Portland Press Herald put it best: "Young children are poor not because they lack motivation or because they made bad choices. But even though they are not to blame for their situation, they pay the price."
Our children are our future. Making them pay the price is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Or, if you prefer: We reap what we sow.
We can all do better to battle this epidemic.