Why Poverty…Why Now?

This year’s Early Childhood Conference in Blue Hill will focus on the effects of poverty in our local communities: The Poverty Hurdle – In Pursuit of Goals and Dreams for Every Family, Every Child. So why poverty and why now?

Why Poverty? Is poverty the new ‘hot topic’ of the year or are the effects of poverty on families and children becoming too pervasive to keep ignoring? The number of people in the US living in poverty — 46.2 million — is the highest ever recorded in Census Bureau records. Perhaps most troubling are statistics like this one: one in four children under the age of 6 are living in poverty. Closer to home, Maine had the second highest state rate of households accepting public assistance in 2010.

We all know that poverty means not having enough money or resources to meet daily needs. It might mean generations of poverty for some families, or short-term need due to unemployment or unforeseen medical expenses for others. The government uses income levels and the percentage of income spent on food as one way of assessing poverty. How else can we measure the need here at home?

Food security is a challenge for many peninsula families. In 2012, the Tree of Life Food Pantry served a total of 960 different families, an average of 192 families per week, with five new families coming for the first time every week. That translates to an 11% increase from 2011 to 2012, and a 15% increase in use from 2010 to 2011. Within our towns, 45 – 65% of our elementary school children qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Lack of health insurance, despite high Medicaid enrollment in our state, is another indicator of poverty. Under Maine law, all hospitals must provide care to everyone regardless of income or insurance status. This ‘charity care’ has quadrupled across the state since 2000. Per EMHS’ annual report, in 2012 this amount was over $800,000 for Blue Hill Memorial Hospital alone.

Why now? It’s time. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, child poverty has increased in the past 35 years primarily due to decreased real value of wages earned by lower educated workers, lower welfare/TANF support (in real dollars), and increased numbers of single-parent, female-headed families. Those with 12 or fewer years of schooling have experienced the greatest decrease in the value of their earning power. Even workers with postsecondary schooling have had problems earning more than a poverty-level income in recent years.

What are the effects of poverty on children? The American Psychological Association research has demonstrated that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of children. Poverty is linked with substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate childcare, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools. Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral, social, and emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.

  1. Poverty has a particularly adverse effect on the academic outcomes of children, especially during early childhood. Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory, which may impact their ability to learn and succeed in their school environment.

  2. Bob Holmberg, pediatric consultant for Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and member of the Healthy Peninsula Early Childhood Work Group, understands the effects of poverty in our communities. “I am seeing many young school aged children referred due to their disruptive behaviors and difficulty learning in school. Tragically, their histories are common: born into severely stressful family situations, all related to the anticipated complications of extreme poverty. This ‘toxic stress’ of family poverty and its complications has physical effects on the infant’s developing brain. If we’re going to make a difference for these young families and infants, we need greater community support, training, and mentoring from the very beginning, as well as accessible early pre-school education programs for BOTH children and parents as occurs in the Sedgwick Elementary School Early Child Education and Care program.”

How can you help? Come to the conference on October 19th at the Blue Hill Consolidated School. Learn how to “channel change through education and action”. Connect with others who want to help and work together to improve outcomes for all children and families within our communities. For more information on the conference, go to healthypeninsula.org or call Healthy Peninsula at 374-3257.

Your Health Matters is a monthly health column by Healthy Peninsula and the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. Sandra Phoenix is a family nurse practitioner, and member of the HP Advisory Board and the HP Early Childhood Work Group.