Too often, budget debates turn into academic exercises. Millions of dollars get trimmed from this program and that program, with scant attention paid to the flesh-and-blood people who are affected. A new report puts a face on one such group: Ohio's children.
According to the Children's Defense Fund, the percentage of children in Ohio living in poverty in 2009, the most recent year for which there are statistics, rose in all but a handful of counties. More than one in four children lived in poverty in 31 counties, up from 15 counties the year before. The number of counties with a childhood poverty rate of 33 percent or more increased from two to seven.
Poverty rates ranged from about 6.5 percent in Delaware County, a fast-growing area near Columbus, to 36.5 percent in rural Jackson County in south Ohio. The rate in Lucas County was 27.4 percent in 2009, up from 26 percent in 2008.
Three things are frightening about these numbers. First is the size of the spike in just one year. In many counties, child poverty increased by more than 20 percent. In Fairfield and Ashland counties, the rate more than doubled.
Second, these figures are two years old. Childhood poverty numbers for 2010 could be even worse, because only in recent months has Ohio begun to see indicators that the recession that started in late 2007 is abating.
Third, the poverty line set by the U.S. Census Bureau is about $14,500 a year for a family of two and $21,756 for a family of four. A report this year by the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies concluded that an Ohio family of four would have to earn more than $43,000 a year to meet its basic needs without public assistance of any kind. So the CDF report likely underestimates the number of Ohio children living below the poverty line.
Poverty affects every aspect of a child's life, from physical and emotional security to health to academic performance. A child raised in poverty is more likely to remain poor, and to pass the legacy of poverty on to his or her children.
When governments put off fixing roads, often they can catch up later with little permanent damage. But children are more than numbers on a balance sheet.
When their basic needs are neglected, the damage is harder to repair. It is against this backdrop that cuts in state aid for child care, schools, transportation, and social services must be judged.
Lawmakers in Columbus recently poured nearly $250 million into the state's depleted rainy day fund, to stablize the budget in future years. For thousands of Ohio children, it's pouring now.