First, Children: Legislature must meet kids' needs

Fairly bleak pre-winter news comes from the state's leading child advocacy group, at the same time the state Legislature faces the trying task of finding $710 million to balance the state budget.

Low income families across Oregon have difficulty providing basic food and shelter for their children, according to Children First for Oregon (CFFO). The 2001 County Data Book: Growing Up in Oregon, released Monday, reports data on the economic stability and quality of family life in every county in Oregon.

"We found that even after 10 years of general economic prosperity too many children across Oregon are growing up poor, hungry or homeless," said CFFO executive director Marie Hoeven.

More sobering still is that most of the data was collected during 2000, before the current recession settled in.

The report states, "the prosperity of the 1990s resulted in some improvements in child well being, but it did not provide many families with lasting financial stability.

"As the economy continues to decline more stress will be put on our system of supports.

The state needs to be ready to help families who are losing their jobs. The Children First study reports:

* 42 percent of children in Oregon live in families with incomes below or near the poverty level (the Federal Poverty Level for a family of four is an income of less than $17,630. CFFO considers a family of four near poverty if they make between 100 percent and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level);

* 28 percent of Oregon's families spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing;

* 34 percent of the state's public school children need help paying for school lunch or breakfast;

* 45 percent of adults in families with children have only a high school education or less;

* Nearly 3,000 kids were homeless on a given night in 2000. Low income working families do have some options for improving their financial stability, including taking advantage of state and federal tax credits.

CFFO notes that businesses can help their employees by letting them know about the federal EITC, child care tax credits, the Children's Health Insurance Program and other services that can help lower income families.

There are also many ways families of any income can improve the quality of their family life. Family relationships can make a big difference to a child's well being, and CFFO notes that the data show that most parents in Oregon do have positive relationships with their children.

Yet high numbers of children are at elevated risk for drug and alcohol abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, violent behavior and high school drop-out because of their "negative relationships with their family and community," according to CFFO.

Children First's findings were released as the state is about to begin a special budget cutting session. As Oregon faces an economic recession, the legislature is planning to make deep cuts in services to vulnerable families.

As CFFO director Liz Smith put it, "The state didn't prepare for a rainy day, and now it's raining. Our state needs to invest in better strategies for helping families to achieve financial stability and build stronger relationships with their children."

The CFFO report ought to be placed in top consideration as the Oregon Legislature's Budget Prioritization Committee meets this week to figure out where cuts need to be made.

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