Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Half of South Carolina's children live in poverty; lawmakers consider more budget cuts

It is accurate to call news "news" if it isn't new, and if everyone already knew it?

From last Friday's Charleston Post & Courier came "news" that shouldn't surprise anyone living in South Carolina. Perhaps it was meant to be news to readers from outside the state, though it's doubtful that any non-Carolinians would be shocked to see it printed again.

The news? A report from a quasi-legislative committee has concluded that nearly half of South Carolina's children live in poverty. And the legislature (a) offers no solutions to the problem and (b) continues to ponder which of a myriad cuts it will inflict to programs and services for the state's poorest citizens.

The newspaper's report calls to mind the old puzzler: What do you do when you find you've dug yourself into a hole? The answer seems to depend on whether your hole is dug into South Carolina's red clay or the soil of some other state. Elsewhere, you might throw down the shovel and call for help to climb out; in South Carolina, we double-down on digging.

An excerpt:

Nearly half of the state's 1 million residents under 18 "lived in some officially measured degree of poverty" last year, according to a report issued Thursday. About half of all children qualified for Medicaid benefits in any given month, and more than one-third received subsidized school meals.

The 35-page report from the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children is meant to provide lawmakers with information they can use to make policy and funding decisions, its authors said.

The report offers no concrete recommendations, only an acknowledgement of current economic challenges and the general admonition that political decisions should strike a balance between the need for budget reductions and the obligations to the state's children.

The Courier says it's been nearly two decades since this Committee issued its last report. Why? It was "unfunded" for most of that time and revived just three years ago -- despite its unique mission:

The bi-partisan joint committee, which consists of six appointed legislators, three appointed citizens and six state agency officials, is the only political body that considers all aspects of child welfare in South Carolina.

Child welfare is clearly not a priority to the modern legislature. Of the various programs and services designed to help poor children, which do you expect to be protected by lawmakers this year?

Lawmakers are grappling with a $700 million budget gap and have said that no state program, including services to children, is immune to cuts.

None of them. Which means that unless South Carolinians choose to make changes themselves, we'll see the same report issued in another 20 years, and another 20 years, and another...

Here's a snapshot of the Committee's finding on public health and impoverished children:

Many children in the state go without health insurance, are inadequately immunized against disease and suffer from obesity and chronic illness.

--More than 136,000 children in South Carolina had no health insurance in 2009.

--Approximately 20 percent of the state's children are not getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended dosage of vaccinations by age 2.

--More than one-third of high school students are obese or overweight.

--25 percent of low-income children, ages 2-5, are obese or overweight.

--Research shows obese teens tend to stay obese, gaining an average of 80 more pounds as they become adults, and leading to chronic health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and cancer.

--Thousands of children suffer from asthma, and 5,680 were hospitalized for it in 2008.

--Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes were diagnosed in about 2,000 children in 2007.

On the topic of child welfare, the Committee reported:

According to the law, the state must intervene when parents or legal guardians abuse or neglect their children.

--About 19,000 cases of possible abuse or neglect were referred to the Department of Social Services in 2010, and 6,705 cases were found to be legitimate, affecting more than 12,000 children.

--8,800 children were neglected or threatened by neglect; 2,900 were threatened by physical abuse; 1,500 were injured by physical abuse.

--Victims include young witnesses of siblings being abused.

--About half of abuse victims are 5 years old or younger.

--Financial strain, substance abuse and mental disorders contribute to higher levels of abuse and neglect.

And how many of South Carolina's children live in families where there is financial strain?

Nearly 200,000 children in the state, about 20 percent, are officially recognized as "poor".

--463,000 children in the state live in families considered "low-income," according to government measures.

--1 in 5 children living in poverty have emotional or behavioral problems.

--328,000 public school students received subsidized meals in 2008-2009.

--Nearly half of all children in public schools received assistance to obtain proper nutrition.

--The state Medicaid program, administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, ensures that the poor and disabled receive basic health care, but the agency faces a budget shortfall of $228 million.

--Two-thirds of Medicaid recipients are part of working families but do not earn enough to afford insurance.

Does our state do enough to prioritize and address the welfare of its poorest children? Or their parents?

Does it matter?

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