An annual survey of Maine’s economy was released recently, and it shows that, although children and the poor aren’t numbered among society’s power brokers, their well-being is critical to Maine’s development as a place to work and do business.
The state-funded “Measures of Growth in Focus” analysis reports on an array of indicators of advancement toward sustainable, long-term growth. Some of these are standard business measures, such as gross domestic product and the cost of energy.
The analysis, however, also includes metrics that don’t often appear on the business pages, such as fourth-grade reading scores, the state’s poverty rate and the percentage of overweight and obese adults. Although these problems have been a longtime burden on Maine, the state has failed to take the steps it should to fully address the issues. Just as well-maintained roads and widespread high-speed Internet access are central to Maine’s economic infrastructure, so are healthy, educated workers — and our state won’t move ahead without them.
This year’s “Measures of Growth in Focus” is the 20th such report issued by the Maine Economic Growth Council, a nonpartisan research group of state appointees representing a broad range of interests, and compiled with the help of the Maine Development Foundation. Most of the indicators have been measured for years, so the report offers a look at long-term trends. And when a given indicator is flagged repeatedly, it’s a sign that something’s wrong.
READY TO READ? NOT YET
The level of reading proficiency among Maine’s fourth-graders is one of these red flags. The council’s goal: By 2015, 50 percent of Maine students would be reading at grade level or above. The reality, the panel noted in its 2011, 2012 and 2013 reports: “Maine has made no progress on this measure since 1994.” That was the year that about 41 percent of fourth-grade students in Maine were reading at grade level or above, compared to the national average of 28 percent. But by 2011, Maine’s proficiency rate had dropped to 32 percent — the same as the national average.
This year, there is some good news on this front: The reading proficiency of Maine fourth-graders has started to climb again, to 37 percent in 2013 (the national average was 34 percent). It’s a critical measurement, because fourth grade is a transition point. Research shows that children who can’t read well by this time likely will remain poor readers for the rest of their academic careers — making it more probable that they’ll drop out of high school, which, in turn hurts their chances of getting a good job and contributing to the community.
To address the problem, the report specifically recommends investment in early childhood education programs such as universal pre-kindergarten and Head Start. Legislators have moved in this direction, with the Appropriations Committee backing a proposal to restore $500,000 in cuts to Head Start, and the education committee supporting a bill to use Oxford Casino revenue to establish voluntary pre-K programs in all Maine school systems by fall 2017.
Research shows that early childhood education is particularly helpful to low-income children, whose numbers continue to increase — a development that’s the focus of another “Measures of Growth” red flag.
POVERTY’S PERVASIVE IMPACT
The goal: “Maine’s poverty rate will decline and remain below the U.S. average through 2015.” The reality: Between 2011 and 2012, Maine’s poverty rate grew to 13.9 percent, although still below the U.S. rate of 15.7 percent.
The rate for Maine kids younger than 5, however, hit 24.5 percent (nationally, the rate declined). And for those under 18 in Maine, the poverty rate reached 19.8 percent (the U.S. rate was unchanged).
Children who grow up in poverty face roadblocks to success in school and later life that others don’t. They develop chronic health problems from lack of care, driving up absenteeism. They don’t get enough to eat, making it harder to pay attention in class. They’re raised in homes where there’s too much stress or discord for activities that boost fundamental literacy skills, such as reading aloud.
There are other challenges to family prosperity and educational achievement. Income-tax cuts for the wealthy have hurt middle-class and poor families. Some parents have lost MaineCare coverage (and an expansion bill appears doomed), increasing the chance that a medical crisis could cost them their jobs. What’s more, state support for schools keeps falling (though the passage of a bill that prevented a $40 million cut in state aid to municipalities may ease the impact on local education budgets).
Meanwhile, the LePage administration continues to voice rhetoric that casts poverty as a character flaw, brushing off the idea that with government support, low-income families might be able to become self-sufficient, productive members of society.
Republicans in Augusta have been particularly vocal on the subject of expanding low-income Mainers’ eligibility for government-funded MaineCare, saying it’s a form of welfare that breeds dependency and discourages job-seeking.
So the outlook is bleak for reducing the incidence of health problems that are associated with poverty, such as being overweight and obesity, both of which are alarmingly prevalent in Maine.
The Maine Economic Growth Council’s goal: “The percent of overweight and obese adults in Maine will decrease to 50 percent by 2015.” The reality: “Nearly two-thirds (64.2 percent) of Maine adults were either overweight or obese in 2012, compared to 56.3 percent in 2000.” What’s more, the rate of overweight Mainers was stable from 2000 to 2012, but the adult obesity rate in Maine rose by more than 8 percentage points during this same stretch of time.
It’s unclear why there’s a link between poverty and obesity, though research has found that low-income people are less likely than their higher-income peers to exercise and eat a healthy diet. But there is a well-established association between being overweight or obese and developing costly chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Indeed, $767 million per year in medical expenses in Maine is attributable to being overweight and obesity, the council found, resulting in $2 billion per year in losses to the state’s productivity rate.
The advent of the Affordable Care Act, which mandates preventive services such as screening and counseling people who are overweight or obese, means that more help is available to more people who want to take this step toward better health. While this will reach some low-income Mainers, others still will lose out if the state doesn’t expand MaineCare eligibility. Meanwhile, the costs to Maine’s health care system will continue to mount.
Any legislator who still hesitates to help young and low-income Mainers should read “Measures of Growth in Focus,” which provides solid evidence, signed off on by Maine lawmakers, businesspeople, policy advocates and other leaders, of the benefits of funding programs to boost reading proficiency and reduce the rates of poverty and obesity. No matter what other steps Maine takes to attract and support business, these efforts will be in vain unless Maine officials commit to supporting the well-being of the people who live here.