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Kids in Poverty

Three hundred and forty-one thousand. That’s the number of children in our state living in what is officially known these days as “areas of concentrated poverty.” Our ancestors would have called where they lived “the worst slums.”

We are talking about homes that sometimes lack heat and light, that are surrounded by crack houses and other houses that have burned down, places where life is too often nasty, brutish and short.

Two-thirds of all children in Detroit live in such neighborhoods, streets like the one where a nine-month-old baby was killed by a bullet from an AK-47 assault rifle Monday.

But most poor children don’t live in Detroit. Some live in rural poverty, in Roscommon or Chippewa Counties up north, where alcoholism is high. Yes, a few of these children will escape, thanks to the efforts of a parent, teacher or mentor.

Somehow they will get a halfway decent education, a job and a better life, though that is becoming increasingly hard to do. But most won’t, just as most kids whose dreams are based on a basketball won’t make it to the NBA. Instead, the numbers of the desperately poor are swelling. According to a new report funded by the Annie E, Casey Foundation, there were a hundred and twenty-five thousand more poor kids in our state in twenty-ten than ten years earlier.

Nationally, the number of poor children zoomed by more than a million and a half. Michigan, once a prosperous state, is one of the nation’s seven worst. The report was released today by the state office of the Kids Count project.

The Michigan director, Jane Zehnder-Merrell, noted the obvious: “Children from poor neighborhoods are affected,” even in those rare cases where their own families are not poor. “They struggle more with behavior and emotional problems, they are less likely to graduate and they have reduced potential to be economically successful.” No kidding.

This is a scandal, and it‘s likely to get worse. The economy may be improving slowly, but not for these folks, and our government in Lansing seems more interested in reducing or eliminating the scanty benefits they do get. That may be a worse scandal than the poverty itself. And here‘s another one. We have an epic political battle raging in this state this week over next Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are locked in a tight race. But I already know what they will say about this report on children in poverty: Nothing. Not unless asked, and then they will say something like, “this is a sign of the failure of President Obama‘s job-killing policies.” What nobody is saying is that we have to do something to save these kids now, for our own long-term good as much as theirs.

Gilda Jacobs, who runs the Michigan League for Human Services, says fully restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor would help, though there is no sign this legislature is inclined to do that. Improving transportation options would too.

But that will take years at best. We would do something in a heartbeat if a tornado devastated a city. But this is worse.

And it seems only common sense to say that we who are not poor ignore it at our peril.