More than one in five children in Rhode Island are living in poverty, according to a recent report from Rhode Island Kids Count, a multi-issue children’s advocacy group. The statement is a compilation of U.S. Census Bureau statistics and Kids Count’s own data from the past five years.
Rhode Island has the highest rate of child poverty out of the six New England states and ranks 27th in the nation. Since Kids Count began keeping records in 1995, the state’s poverty rates have fluctuated between 14 and 21 percent. In 2008, at the start of the nationwide recession, 15.5 percent of Rhode Island children were living in poverty. That rate has climbed steadily to reach its current 21.9 percent, the report shows. This 6.4 percent increase of children living in poverty is greater than the national 4.3 percent average increase.
“Children most at risk of not achieving their full potential are children in poverty,” Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of Kids Count, told The Herald. “They are more likely to have health and behavioral problems, lack access to high-quality educational opportunities, become teen parents and earn less or be unemployed as adults,” she said.
Children living in poverty are predominantly concentrated in urban centers, with two-thirds living in the “four core cities” of Pawtucket, Central Falls, Woonsocket and Providence, according to Bryant. And it is in these areas that Kids Count focuses the majority of their efforts, she said.
Brown Sociology Professor John Logan, an expert on urban, race and ethnicity and family sociology, echoed Bryant’s views in citing the recession and lack of jobs as the leading causes for Rhode Island’s urban-based poverty.
In the last 50 years, Providence has undergone a deindustrialization from its heyday as a manufacturing center, Logan said. And whereas certain cities like Boston rebounded by focusing on technology and health care, Providence never experienced such an economic recovery. No steady industry replaced the old one, Logan said.
Rhode Island, and more specifically its urban centers, would need to restructure the internal economy to have the job base necessary to pull residents out of persistent poverty, Logan said. But “no one expects much of a recovery,” he added.
The best solution, both Bryant and Logan said, is to treat the symptoms of job scarcity and financial weakness. Kids Count works to implement and sustain various statewide incentives to support impoverished children.
Bryant cited maintaining reliable health insurance for children as one of Kids Count’s chief priorities. Rhode Island’s health insurance program is ranked 10th-best in the country, Bryant said. With the statewide program, two-thirds of Rhode Island children receive health insurance through their parents’ work. The one-third of children whose parents cannot provide health insurance receive regular care through Rite Care, Rhode Island’s Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program-managed health care program for low-income children and pregnant women. So even when hard times hit, all children have the necessary access to regular health care, Bryant said.
The Food Stamp/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, an initiative designed to help low-income families, has been in higher demand in recent months, Bryant said. The rise in popularity can be attributed to new restrictions with the Rhode Island Works cash assistance program, she added. Those who once qualified for cash assistance are now only eligible to receive state funds for a 24-month period. Kids Count is currently working to inform lower-income families of their eligibility for assistance programs, Bryant said.
The organization is enjoying a lot of success with these short-term projects, in providing nutritious food and health care to children and their families and in their community outreach programs, Bryant said.
Kids Count also seeks to implement state legislation to prevent adults from raising children in poverty and to prevent poor children from eventually becoming low-earning adults themselves, she said.
The Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit are the two most effective tax reduction laws in Rhode Island, Bryant said. The Child Tax allows parents to reduce their federal income tax by up to $1,000 per qualifying child, and the Earned Income Tax allows qualifying families to retain more of their earned annual income. Kids Count works to inform Rhode Island’s families living in poverty of their eligibility for such reductions based on their income level and children per household.
“Children that are living in poverty today are going to be tomorrow’s leaders in this state,” Bryant said.