April 10, 2009

General Assembly considers child poverty commission

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

The words “child poverty” may conjure up an image of a youngster from a developing country, not a child from the heartland of the United States.

But Indiana has its share of child poverty—as high as 28 percent in some counties, according to U.S. Census information compiled by the Indiana Youth Institute.

Of the 92 counties in Indiana, 83 of them have at least a 10 percent rate or higher of children ages 0-17 in poverty. Eighteen counties have a 10 percent to 15.2 percent child poverty rate, 47 counties have a 15.2 percent to 20.1 percent child poverty rate, and 18 counties have a 20.1 percent to 28.1 percent child poverty rate, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.

Why is the child poverty rate in Indiana so high?

Lawmakers in the Indiana Senate overwhelmingly supported a bill to investigate the problem by creating a two-year government commission to study the issue, and make recommendations to combat the situation affecting Indiana’s children.

The proposal, Senate Bill 260, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Auburn) and passed in the Senate by a 41-7 vote, would create a 23-member panel composed of child poverty experts from governmental agencies, non-profit advocacy groups, faith-based community groups and area academia from Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University.

The goal of the panel is to design a plan with biannual benchmarks to achieve a 50 percent reduction in childhood poverty in Indiana by 2020. The bill requires the commission to issue a final report by 2011.

The plan also must incorporate provisions which assist the parents of children living in poverty, including workforce training, educational opportunities, affordable housing, child care and early education programs, after-school and mentoring programs, and access to affordable health care, including access to mental heath and substance abuse programs.

Sen. Kruse said he got involved with the issue in June 2008 when he, along with four other state lawmakers, attended a conference hosted by the

National Conference of State Legislatures and learned about the problems facing the working poor in America.

Following the conference, the lawmakers divided the legislative tasks, and Sen. Kruse’s assignment was to address childhood poverty.

“The purpose of the bill is to continue to keep the children of poverty before the Indiana General Assembly,” Sen. Kruse said. “Poverty has been with us since the beginning of man and will probably always be with us, but that doesn’t mean we ignore it or accept it. I think we have an obligation for our generation to do what we can do to reduce childhood poverty.

“The commission will be an effort in Indiana to reduce childhood poverty by 50 percent by the year 2020. There are roughly 20 other states that have similar commissions in place to address the problem,” Sen. Kruse said.

One critic of the plan, Rep. Cindy Noe

(R-Carmel), who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Family, Child and Human Affairs Committee, believes that the proposal doesn’t get at the root cause of the problem—family fragmentation.

Rep. Noe supports an alternative proposal offered by Sen. Luke Kenley (R-Noblesville). Senate Current Resolution 26 requests that the Legislative Council establish an Interim Study Committee on the economic impact of family fragmentation.

According to “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing,” a study released by the Institute for American Values, the cost of family fragmentation to state and local taxpayers in Indiana is at least $839 million annually.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, who testified before the House panel in support of Senate Bill 260, agrees that family fragmentation does contribute to childhood poverty, and hopes that the commission will recommend governmental policies to promote family unity.

“The commission, which will be composed of the real experts in child poverty, like those from our own

Catholic Charities, academia, governmental agencies and community outreach organizations, are precisely the group best equipped to address the heart of the problem and address the full range of issues contributing to childhood poverty,” Tebbe said. “Issues like employment, career development, access to health care and affordable housing must be addressed in addition to family fragmentation. This comprehensive approach provides Hoosier families in poverty the best opportunity to get out of poverty.”

A legislative study committee as set forth in Senate Current Resolution 26 is composed exclusively of lawmakers. The panel would begin its work in July and make a recommendation to the General Assembly prior to the 2010 legislative session.

“Due to the nature and limited scope of a legislative study panel, Senate Current Resolution 26 alone would be insufficient to accomplish the goal of reducing child poverty,” Tebbe said.

Tebbe is not alone in his thinking.

Sen. Kruse said that while there has been some opposition to his bill, it has been limited.

“The vast majority are favoring it,” Sen. Kruse said. “My anticipation is that the bill will pass this year and become law, and the governor will hopefully sign it.”

The bill now moves to the full House floor for approval. The last day that the House or Senate can approve bills sent over by the opposite chamber is April 15.

The Indiana General Assembly must adjourn by April 29.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. To learn more about the Indiana Catholic Conference, log on to www.indianacc.org.)

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