Even in this season of greater light and hope, serious concerns remain about the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on children and families. The stressors have been significant, particularly for families who were already struggling. In Maine, as elsewhere, the pandemic fell disproportionately hard on people who have historically faced inequitable challenges because of race, poverty, disability or geography.

The Maine Children’s Alliance is committed to providing data to inform public policy, with the aim that all children thrive and meet their full potential. Where possible, the 2021 Maine KIDS COUNT Data Book highlights 2020 indicators that reflect the current situation for children and families. Earlier figures from 2019 can serve as a baseline for assessing well-being before the onset of the crisis.

The Data Book reveals positive trends for children and families as well as key areas of concern:

The early care and education field was hit hard by the pandemic as child care providers, already operating on thin financial margins, struggled to stay afloat. Those that remained open operated below capacity, exacerbating the challenge of finding available and affordable care. Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment in Maine decreased 16 percent between 2019 and 2020. The burden of juggling child care, school in various models and work fell disproportionately on working mothers, with women representing 57 percent of net job loss in Maine during the pandemic. Services and programs that support working families should be center in our recovery efforts.

Teen mental health has become a growing crisis. Maine teens were already struggling based on pre-pandemic survey data: In 2019, Maine had the highest rate in the nation of children with “anxiety problems” at 17 percent. According to May 2020 national survey data, 25 percent of teens reported feeling much less connected to classmates, adults and school. These increased mental health needs must be met with school and community-based services for Maine youth.

The poverty rate for children in Maine fell from 14.8 to 13.8 percent in Maine between 2018-2019. While good news, that still leaves 33,000 children living in poverty, with over 12,600 children in deep poverty, defined as family income below $12,875. Moreover, geographic and racial disparities persist. Four counties have child poverty rates above 20 percent. The rate for Black children in Maine of 46 percent was well above the national average of 33 percent. While the full impact of COVID-19 on child poverty is not yet known, research indicates federal relief, including provisions in the American Rescue Plan, plays a critical role in supporting families and keeping kids out of poverty.

Infant mortality declined in 2019, with the state rate of 5.4 per 1,000 infants now below the national rate. Racial disparities evident in maternal health, however, are cause for concern. In 2019, 12 percent of Black women did not receive prenatal care until the third trimester, if at all, compared to 4 percent for all women giving birth in Maine. This highlights the need to address issues of access to care, as well as ensuring the right care is in the right place at the right time for mothers and babies.

A concerning connection exists between low rates of early intervention services for young children and high rates of special education services for children ages 6 to 20. Maine served fewer than 1 percent of infants under age 1 in 2019, with just 77 identified and connected to services. In the 2019-2020 school year, Maine had the highest rate in the nation of school-aged children receiving special education services. Early detection and intervention for children with special needs are critical to providing appropriate care and preventing delays.

Children are the future of our state. The COVID-19 crisis highlighted inadequacies and inequities in public systems that were already not serving the needs of all Maine children and families. Now is an opportunity to respond not by returning to “normal,” but by rebuilding systems of child care, health, education, housing and employment that are centered in equity and that better serve the children and families who depend on them to thrive.

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