Editorial: State budget cuts may have worsened recession’s pain
Elected officials like to boast about the state’s enviable rankings in a variety of national assessments. New Hampshire regularly rates at or near the top of the chart when states are measured in terms of wealth, health, public safety, employment and more.
But what will those same officials do when faced with the opposite? We’re hoping a jolt of distressing news about child poverty will spur some concrete action at the State House.
The Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire recently reported on the number of children in poverty across the country. Among the standout facts in the new report: New Hampshire saw the largest increase in child poverty in the nation between 2001 and 2012. The state’s child poverty rate increased by more than 75 percent since 2007.
Specifically, in 2012, 15.6 percent (nearly 41,000) of all New Hampshire children younger than 18 were living in poverty. In 2011, the rate was 11.7 percent. In 2007, prior to the recession, the child poverty level was 8.3 percent.
While New Hampshire had the lowest child poverty rate in the nation for more than a decade, 10 states now report lower poverty for all children through age 18.
What’s going on here?
According to Carsey researcher Beth Mattingly, that’s the million-dollar question, one which she and others are now trying to grapple with. Among the areas they’ll study: employment and migration trends.
At some level, New Hampshire is suffering from the same stresses as the rest of the nation, including lost jobs and the replacement of good jobs with part-time or low-wage employment. But experts at the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire have some sound hypotheses about what just might be different about this state at this moment in time.
Specifically, two votes by the 2011-12 Legislature might well have forced a significant number of children below the poverty line.
First, lawmakers eliminated the state’s Unemployed Parent Program in July 2011. This was a financial assistance program for two-parent families in which one or both parents were unemployed. According to the Children’s Alliance, that shut off assistance to 250 families with 380 children. (The current state budget revived the program but, so far, with no money to spend on it.)
Second, the state changed its rules about who qualifies for welfare assistance. Unlike all but a few states, New Hampshire now counts federally funded Supplemental Security Income benefits (paid to adults or children with disabilities) as income when determining eligibility. As a result, about 1,300 households with 2,000 children lost their monthly financial assistance. Another 420 households with 640 children saw a substantial decrease in aid.
That’s a lot of numbers to digest. The short version is this: When child welfare advocates and others filled the halls and front lawn of the State House a few years back, they urged lawmakers not to make a terrible recession even worse for some of the state’s neediest families. Cut these programs, make these budget cuts, they warned, and children will suffer. Turns out, their predictions might well have been correct.
Those policy shifts do not account perhaps for the entire spike in poverty statistics, but they seem likely to have contributed.
Here’s how Ellen Fineberg, head of the Children’s Alliance, describes what’s at stake: “We know that poverty is the factor that is the most detrimental for children, especially young children: not enough food, inadequate shelter, compromises with heat. This is the time that children grow the most. It’s really hard, when they get into school, to compensate. Some kids catch up and it’s great; they have the resilience to get through. But that’s not the rule.”
Writing the state budget is an enormous challenge, more so when the economy is slow and dollars are scarce. But chopping the programs that help needy children is a particularly cruel approach. We urge state leaders to rethink those decisions before another grim collection of statistics is compiled.