Poverty plagues our youngest citizens

Better to stoke the public’s fear of immigrants than to talk about poverty and health care.

The recently released Census Bureau numbers ought to ignite a state policy debate about health care, poverty and family income, but don’t count on it.

Those issues don’t seem to find their way into many of the campaign speeches sketched out by the pollsters and focus-group consultants hired by political parties and their candidates. Better to stoke the public’s fear of immigrants than to talk about poverty and health care.

Never mind that almost one in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty. Politicians love children, including the poor ones — especially when they get to school and have to take standardized tests. But helping their poor families at home is a different matter.

Helping their mothers isn’t very popular either. The 1996 welfare-reform initiative promised single mothers help with childcare so they could enter the work force or go back to school to learn a skill that could help them find work. But as we mark the 10th anniversary of welfare reform, it’s time to admit that the promise has been broken.

More than 30,000 children in North Carolina languish on the waiting list for child-care subsidies. Their mothers can’t go back to school or take even a low-wage job. Instead, they’re stuck in poverty because they can’t afford care for their child.

The General Assembly did increase the reimbursement for child-care centers this session and found a few million dollars to remove 3,000 kids from the waiting list. That’s better than nothing, but not much — especially if you’re one of the 30,000 kids still waiting.

Meanwhile, the election-year budget debate is shaping up as a battle between candidates who say lawmakers spent too much money last session and those who defend the budget as a responsible plan.

But there is still another point of view: Lawmakers could have made more progress. They could have helped thousands more children and their mothers by refusing to cut taxes on the richest people in the state and using that money to take children off the waiting list.

On average, childcare for a 3-year-old costs about $7,000 a year. Even with the increase in the minimum wage, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $12,700 a year.

Eighty-two percent of the children now receiving the subsidy live in families with annual incomes of less than $25,000. Ninety-three percent of the daycare-subsidy money helps make it possible for a parent to work or go to school to be better equipped to get a job. The other 7 percent pays for services for children with special needs and their families.

The child-care subsidy is a direct and effective way to help people lift themselves and their families out of poverty. But no one wants to talk about it.

As the latest census numbers make clear, hundreds of thousands of North Carolina families are still struggling — a problem the politicians are advised to ignore. Solving the child-care crisis is only part of the solution. But it would be a start, and you can help.

The next time a candidate tells you how tough they are on illegal immigration, ask them for their plan to eliminate the waiting list for child-care subsidies. Let me know what they tell you.

[Veteran news reporter Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of NC Policy Watch, reports on what’s happening in the N.C. General Assembly in his daily column, The Fitzsimon File.]

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