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Breaking cycle of poverty about more than numbers

by Michael Caldwell

Having seen a million press releases over the past 20 years, it is embarrassing to admit, but they all start to look the same.

Even worse, it is easy to let the statistics many include to become just numbers on paper.

These figures are far more than just data.

A release that popped into my email Thursday hit home because of a very powerful statement: One in four children in our state lives in poverty.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 247,780 Kentucky children still live in poverty, a statistic that has been pretty steady for the past decade.

So, what exactly does “poverty” look like?

According to the federal government, the poverty threshold is about $25,000 in annual income for a family of four that includes two children.

Think about that for a second.

That breaks down to about $2,100 a month — or roughly $525 a week — to live on.

Start subtracting essentials like rent, gas, water, electric and food and these families are quickly upside down. That is where social support programs are critical.

Data suggests that families need an income of about twice that just to survive.

“Children thrive when their parents can earn a living and meet the basic needs of their family,” Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in that press release that helped shine a light on this issue. “And yet, year after year, we see an unrelenting pattern — too many kids across the Commonwealth growing up in poverty. Fighting poverty is a tough and complex proposition, but there are actions that can be taken at federal, state, and local levels that will immediately make a difference. It’s really about political will and not policy viability.”

This updated data puts Kentucky with the fourth highest rate of child poverty, and overall poverty, among all 50 states.

That is not a list of which we want to be at the top.

Kentucky Youth Advocates cites additional data released this week from the Census Bureau to show that refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, have the greatest effect on child poverty among all cash and non-cash benefits and resources received by families. In 2016, 4.4 million U.S. children were lifted out of poverty due to refundable tax credits.

“No aspect of a child’s life is more pervasive than economic well-being. Living in poverty literally permeates every aspect of a child’s life, including their health, reading levels, and workforce prospects,” Brooks said. “If Kentucky wants to gets serious about tackling childhood poverty, no idea holds more potential than a state refundable Earned Income Tax Credit.”

The KYA report cites the fact that the federal EITC has encouraged work while also helping working families who earn low incomes make ends meet plus the fact that nearly half of states have enacted a refundable state EITC as an additional temporary support for their families.

The agency goes on to contend that a new report from the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children that says a refundable state EITC would boost local economies, increase workforce participation of adults and improve workforce preparedness of youth.

“The EITC has a proven record of getting and keeping people working. It is, in fact, the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program,” Brooks said. “It makes pragmatic and principled sense to enact a refundable EITC right here in Kentucky. How often can one solution create real wins for our families, local communities, and the state economy?”

Is a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit the answer? I cannot answer that. Is it a good approach to get us going in the right direction? Probably.

The first step is simply acknowledging that we have a problem and making a commitment to finding solutions. It is time for Kentucky to do that.

No child should be considered a statistic and everyone deserves a life beyond just survival.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Jessamine Journal and Jessamine Life magazine. He can be reached at (859) 469-6452 or by email at mike.caldwell@jessaminejournal.com.