Kids in Maine are doing better in a lot of important ways.
And it’s not an accident. Smart public policies are making a real difference in the lives of Mainers, including our youngest residents.
Earlier this week, the Maine Children’s Alliance and the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the annual KIDS COUNT Data Book, which tracks the health and well-being of kids in the state across a number of categories.
For the most part, the news is good. Overall, Maine moved into ninth place in 2017 among the states for kids, up seven spots from 16 the year before.
Among the areas for improvement was a significant reduction in the number of children who are living in poverty. The number of kids in poverty dropped from just nearly 17 percent in 2016 to roughly 14 percent in 2017. Still too high, for sure, but a major improvement.
“In one year, Maine had the most significant reduction in child poverty in the country, bolstered in part by the minimum wage increase that went into effect in January 2017,” said Claire Berkowitz, the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance in a press release about the data book. “Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development and so it’s very good news that our state is moving the needle in the right direction on this important indicator.”
The road to a high minimum wage was anything but smooth. After years of failure by former Gov. Paul LePage and Republicans in the Legislature to raise the minimum wage, voters finally had enough and took matters into their own hands.
In 2016, they put a question on the ballot to increase the minimum wage and give hard-working families a raise. The initiative, which was supported by 56 percent of voters, raised the minimum wage from a paltry $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour and put it on track to increase to $12 an hour by 2020.
The policy is working, without the disastrous effects predicted by opponents. The minimum wage increase did not kill jobs – unemployment is very low in Maine – and it did not “drive more people into poverty,” as LePage claimed it would.
In fact, the higher minimum wage did just the opposite.
Turns out if people have more money from their jobs, they are much less likely to live in poverty — and so are their children. For 6,400 kids who were lifted out of poverty, the higher minimum wage has made a life-changing difference.
Maine also improved in other areas of the report, including health and measures of family and community.
An estimated 55 percent of Maine children ages 0-5 are read to every day (the national rate is just 34 percent) and teen pregnancies for ages 10-17 dropped 62 percent since 2008, from 445 in 2007 to 170 in 2017.
There are also areas of real concern, including the facts that 952 babies in the state were born drug-affected and the number children in foster care has increased. Maine has also seen an increase in the child and teen suicide rate.
On education, Maine is stagnant, while other states are making important gains. For example, Maine ranks 33rd for 3- and 4-year-olds who are not enrolled in early childhood education programs, according to a press release from the Maine Children’s Alliance.
If we want to improve in these areas, we need to put in place the same type of forward thinking policies that have helped to lift families out of poverty.
We know that enrolling kids in high-quality early childhood education programs makes a positive difference. For example, the Maine Department of Education says that public pre-K programs significantly increases reading and math scores for at-risk kids.
Making sure working families got a pay raise reduced poverty. Expanding access to quality pre-school helps kids to be better learners. Aggressive programs to combat drug addiction can reduce babies who are born drug-affected. Smart gun policies can reduce suicides.
Figuring out the policies that work isn’t always that hard. It’s figuring out the politics that often stands in the way. If we want to continue to improve the plight of many kids living in Maine, it’s pretty clear what we need to do.