By Shannon Cotsoradis
October 29, 2015
On Thursday, October 22nd I had the privilege of presenting at the Kansas Economic Policy Conference. The theme of this year’s conference was Economic Opportunity in Kansas: What Does the Future Hold? When we think about what the future holds in Kansas, many of us are quick to focus on the state’s current fiscal situation. And, while that certainly doesn’t bode well for our future, I think there is another indicator that is just as important. Here are a couple of the thoughts I shared with the audience:
Childhood poverty is persistently high in Kansas. For more than a decade, the percentage of children living in poverty in Kansas has been on the rise. Nearly 1 in 5 Kansas children are growing up in poverty. Despite a recent downtick in this trend, childhood poverty continues to be at levels more consistent with a recession than with an economic recovery. And, we are lagging several of our neighboring Midwestern states in terms of improvement on this indicator.
We know what to do, but we just aren’t doing it. While the dialogue at the state level might suggest we don’t know what to do to change the trend with respect to childhood poverty, the evidence is clear and compelling. For our youngest children, changing the trajectory means investing in two things: income supports and access to high-quality early learning. It is that simple. In fact, for a family with a young child, a $3,000 annual boost to family income is associated with a 17 percent increase in adult earnings and 135 additional work hours per year after age 25. And, children who have access to high-quality early education require less remediation and special education, complete more school, are better prepared for a job, have higher lifetime earnings, and incur lower criminal justice and welfare costs. Together, income supports – like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Earned Income Tax Credit – and access to high-quality early learning is a powerful combination that can change the course of a child’s life.
Childhood poverty has consequences for our economy. While there are more immediate opportunities for concern when it comes to the Kansas economy, the long-term implications of persistently high levels of childhood poverty are significant and shouldn’t be overlooked. Children that grow up in poor families – absent significant intervention – are likely to become tomorrow’s poor adults. The poverty status of children has negative consequences for their health as adults, their educational attainment, and their lifetime earnings. Poor adult health, low educational attainment, and the inability to transcend low-wage work has obvious human costs. What may be less apparent is how costly it is for all of us. If policymakers continue to make choices that fly in the face of what’s good for children growing up in poverty today, tomorrow the same children will be relying on Medicaid, public assistance, and other costly government programs.
This conversation will certainly continue as the 2016 legislative session approaches, and we hope you will contribute to the dialogue. If we are committed to an economic future that is bright in Kansas, we can’t continue to ignore the consequences of failing to invest in our poorest children. Policymakers must set their ideological commitments aside, and instead commit to an approach that recognizes the success of children is inextricably linked to the success of their parents.