Special to Providence Journal (Print Edition)
The time to act is now to lift more than 5,000 children in Rhode Island out of extreme poverty.
The measure commonly used to define poverty is the federal poverty level (FPL), and equates to $1,919 per month for a family of three. Extreme poverty is defined as half of FPL — or $960 per month. In Rhode Island today a family of three is eligible for a monthly benefit of $721 or 38% of FPL through the Rhode Island Works Program.
Children living in poverty, especially those living in extreme poverty, are more likely to have health, behavioral, educational, economic and social difficulties; earn less as adults, and be unemployed more frequently.
Many Rhode Island children living in extreme poverty don’t attend school because they do not have stable housing or they may have to help take care of siblings while a parent works or goes to school. They also are at higher risk of being hungry and malnourished, and developing anemia or asthma, low academic achievement and behavioral problems, as well as social and emotional development difficulties.
Extreme poverty also increases parental stress, as parents try to care for their children while juggling the adult worries of housing, school, work, finances, and increases the risk for child abuse. Extreme poverty is a constant trauma.
When stress is strong, frequent or extended, children may experience toxic stress. Much like the rings on a tree that change in a drought, toxic stress is a stress experienced at such a level that it prolongs activation of the fight or flight hormones in the body, which in turn affects, and forever changes, the development of the childhood brain — a lifelong poverty consequence. The study of epigenetics notes that these forever changes are passed to future generations through the genes.
Last year, the General Assembly enacted an increase in the RI Works benefit for the first time in 30 years. Gov. Dan McKee’s RI 2030 vision, with its foundation of education, productivity and opportunity, starts with addressing all poverty, but especially extreme poverty. We cannot successfully chart a course for the Ocean State’s future unless and until we address the dire economic, housing and educational needs in our state.
We must increase the monthly RI Work benefit to a level that better supports basic living needs and support this increase with a permanent cost of living adjustment to maintain the value of the benefit. We must extend the lifetime RI Works benefit from 48 to 60 months. It’s time to join the majority of states who provide this lifesaving timeline to needy children and families. And we must, with an unrestricted two-year Community College of Rhode Island education, give parents living in deep poverty the knowledge and skills to be eligible for higher paying jobs.
At this unique inflection point in history, Rhode Island has the responsibility and resources to meaningfully improve our state by lifting more children and families from extreme poverty. With the passage in the General Assembly of bills S-2316 and H-7789, Rhode Island’s children have a better opportunity of growing up safe, healthy, and educated, with a brighter future that will benefit all of us.
Dr. Elizabeth Lange is president of the Rhode Island Medical Society and a pediatrician.