Opinion: Response to ‘Hungry Kids Don’t Have Lobbyists’

For over three decades, Marylanders Against Poverty (MAP), formerly Maryland Alliance for the Poor, has advocated for legislation and budget allocations that address the systems and inequities that cause poverty in our state. Some might even call us the “lobbyists for hungry children.”

As the recent Maryland Matters series “Empty Plates on Maryland’s Tables” made clear, many Marylanders are surprised to learn how many children are growing up in poverty in our state. About 1 in 8 children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level ($21,720 for a family of three). And almost half of those children are living in “deep poverty,” meaning their families are getting by on income that is less than half of the federal poverty level ($10,860 for a family of three).

No one is more frustrated than we are that, 30 years after the late House Appropriations chairman Pete Rawlings convened our first meeting, we still have a reason to exist. Even more upsetting, poverty in Maryland has increased by 19% in the past 30 years.

Some days we ask ourselves whether or not we are really making a difference. It’s on those days that we remind ourselves that without the initiatives MAP and our partners in the Maryland General Assembly have championed, the poverty rate could be twice as high.

Among the legislation MAP and our member organizations have successfully advocated for:

· Ensuring all workers have access to paid sick leave so one bout with the flu doesn’t start a spiral into poverty

· Adjusting the minimum wage to $10.10 and then $15 per hour

· Changing the rules for Temporary Cash Assistance recipients so that when child support is paid, the child receives the funds, not the state

· Allowing individuals (including parents) to expunge charges that did not result in a conviction and to shield convictions for low-level misdemeanors in an attempt to make it easier to find employment

· Creating and expanding family support programs such as Welfare Avoidance grants, Maryland Meals for Achievement, the state Earned Income Tax Credit, and Summer SNAP.

We will be the first to tell you that much work remains. The question is whether or not there is political will to fund it. We very rarely hear “That is a bad idea” from legislators. Usually, if a bill is going to fail, we are told “The fiscal note is too high.” Or, even worse, “It’s cost prohibitive to make the computer system changes your bill would require.” In fact, last year we were invited to offer policy ideas before a group of legislators but with the caveat that we could only present proposals that would not cost the state anything more than the current budget.

If the General Assembly wants to take action this year to attack childhood poverty, lawmakers could:

· Adjust the formula for calculating Temporary Cash Assistance benefit levels so they are no longer set at 61 percent of the Minimum Living Level. This bill is being introduced for the third time after years of trying to effectuate the increase through the budget

· Create an insurance pool that would provide paid leave for workers who need to take time off to care for a new child, themselves or another family member

· Fund and expand the Summer SNAP program so that children have access to food when school is not in session

· Expand the state Earned Income Tax credit

· Allow unaccompanied homeless youth to consent to services at homeless shelters.

These are important but modest approaches — they are aimed at treating the symptoms, not actually ending poverty. At the same time, these incremental changes can still have a significant impact on individual lives. And, big ideas to end poverty float in our dreams, like an indexed minimum wage that is also a living wage, targeted robust job training programs, widespread affordable housing, on-demand behavioral health treatment, transportation systems that link homes to jobs, and so on.

If there truly is the will to end childhood poverty in Maryland, instead of just treating the symptoms, MAP is ready and willing to be part of the solution. Ending childhood poverty is going to take a concerted, coordinated effort by stakeholders in and out of the legislature.

Such an effort will require a significant public investment — though one that the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world is certainly capable of making. And perhaps most importantly, it’s an effort that needs to unite and uplift one another, instead of dividing and diminishing. One single publication, person, organization, bill, or coalition is not going to end poverty, but together we can do more and end childhood hunger in Maryland.

— STACEY JEFFERSON

The writer is co-chair of Marylanders Against Poverty, a coalition of service providers, faith groups, and other organizations working together to advocate for statewide public policies and programs that help Marylanders living in or near poverty. She can be reached at [email protected]