Child Poverty – A National and Statewide Concern
Alaska saw the highest increase in child poverty rates from 2013 to 2014
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has recently released child poverty rates for each state; Alaska is one of nine states that have seen an increase in child poverty rates. The most recent statistics show that between 2013 and 2014, the number of Alaskan children in poverty has increased from 12% to 16%, a significant 33% change. According to the data provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Alaska was the state that saw the highest increase in its’ child poverty rates.
2013 was the first year since the recession where a decrease was observed in the national child poverty rate; this decrease was expected to continue, but as the new statistics show, the national child poverty rate has remained the same between 2013 and 2014. 1 in 5 children live in poverty and in 2014, African American (38%), American Indian (36%), and Latino (32%) children were more likely to live in poverty compared to Caucasian and Asian children (both 13%).
Kids Count Alaska states, “It is important to remember that poverty measures can be tricky in Alaska. This measure does not take into account Alaska’s higher living costs and does not reflect regional differences. Because of Alaska’s small population, relatively small changes in numbers appear as large percentage changes. Finally, remember that these numbers and percentages are estimates and year to year fluctuations in the sample size of the American Community Survey can have a large impact on these estimates. To put the latest numbers in perspective, Alaska’s five-year average poverty rate among children under 18 is 14%, compared to 16% in the latest report. Though the five-year trend is up, the share of children living in poverty in Alaska is among the lowest in the nation, with the national average being 22%.”
Living in poverty can produce extremely unhealthy levels of stress for the entire family, both parents and children. When this stress is severe or ongoing, it is considered “toxic” because of the damage it causes to multiple body systems. When children are exposed to events that produce toxic stress, such as poverty, their brain development can be altered. Toxic stress can impair a child’s physical, social, and intellectual development, which can result in an increased risk of poor performance in schools, mental health problems, substance abuse, and long term health problems. Growing up in poverty shapes brain architecture and functioning in ways that can hinder development in childhood and threaten later wellness. The burden that this creates for the individual, as well as their family and friends, is incalculable; however, monetary aspects of this burden can be calculated to assess direct costs. It is estimated that the United States spends a total of $317.6 billion annually on mental health. Understanding how poverty affects young people is important as our state continues to struggle with budget deficit. Treating mental health is expensive, and as funding decreases, programs that help us do so effectively, will be cut. Recognizing how we can continue to promote wellness for children, despite the fiscal challenges that Alaska faces, will not only reduce costs in the long run, but it will also help families protect their children from the effects that exposure to toxic stress can have.
But, there is hope. While, in general, toxic stress can lead to poor outcomes, not every child or adolescent exposed to it will suffer those consequences. Through the promotion of protective factors (i.e. instilling social competence, confidence, and problem-solving skills; warm and engaged parenting; and access to caring adults outside of the family) a child is more likely to do well, even after experiencing adversity and trauma; this response is known as resiliency. As a community, we can work together to keep children and families out of poverty and improve their living conditions. It’s never too late to help children build their resiliency so that they have the skills to be successful.
The Alaska Children’s Trust improves the status of children in Alaska by generating funds and committing resources to eliminate child abuse and neglect. Established in 1997, ACT has granted nearly $5 million dollars to organizations across the State of Alaska to prevent child abuse and neglect.