Reach out to eliminate child poverty

June 16, 2000|By Mary Ellen Vanni

HUNDREDS OF low-income advocates and administrators of fuel funds throughout the country were in Los Angeles this week tackling the issues of child poverty and the meaning of bill payment assistance, weatherization of houses and past-due utility bills in a restructured electric industry.

In the midst of this five-day conference that ended yesterday, news from Baltimore of the death of the three children and their grandmother from the fire on Amity Street is a poignant reminder to all of us that the safety net for families living in poverty is truly frayed.

Affordable household energy is one of the weakest spots in that safety net. Poor families must use about 22 percent of their income to pay for household energy, according to the most recent numbers from the Children's Defense Fund.

The Joint Low-Income Energy Conferences in Los Angeles, which was hosted by three different organizations, addressed the cost of energy and its effect on low-income families.

Middle income families spend only about 3 percent of their income for energy. The inability of assistance centers and fuel funds to pay for outreach in these communities only furthers this problem.

In Maryland, as in many other states across the country, the budget this past year had a surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars. Maryland's elected officials were not unlike those in California and other states in deciding not to put those funds into any new services or programs for the most vulnerable of our citizens.

The problem is that children are dying.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, only 15 percent of all eligible households receive assistance from the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). After leaving welfare, most families are just barely making it. Few are actually "better off." For these families, accessing assistance programs means taking time from work. And if they do work, they might not realize that they still qualify for assistance.

Children are dying right now in Baltimore. The issues need to be addressed from many angles. Immediate security needs must be met. Kids need to be safe in their own homes before we can expect them to succeed in school or contribute to their community.

Nearly eight years ago, advocates thought that a new federal government would work to address the need for safe, secure housing.

This year, advocates thought that with a state surplus, funding would finally be available to address the need for safe, secure housing.

If changes in the federal government and in available resources do not solve the problem of safe, secure housing, then what is the barrier to providing a secure safety net for children?

The fact is, children in Maryland can't survive in their own homes. If they can't survive in the middle of the night inside their homes with the grandmother, how can they survive the demons that will face them on the street and in the marketplace?

There must be the public and political will to save children. Maryland is fortunate to have very active and informed advocacy networks and coalitions. Advocates for Children and Youth, the Maryland Alliance for the Poor, Welfare Advocates and Energy Advocates are just a few.

I urge city and state leaders to bring these and other advocacy groups together with the appropriate city and state agencies to formulate a plan to reach all of the families in need. And I challenge our local philanthropic foundations to fill the gaps of the federal and state governments and provide assistance for the outreach and advocacy efforts of these groups.

It will take political and public will to do this. And it will take money. But it will save children.

Mary Ellen Vanni is the executive director of the Fuel Fund of Maryland.

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