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Failing Our Families 

LouisianaÕs substance-abuse, mental-health and domestic-violence services are tremendously overburdened and underfunded.

In Louisiana, about 10 percent of our low-income kids live in a household where no adult worked during the past year -- double the national average. This year's Kids Count study, released late last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focuses on these persistently unemployed adults and how unemployment affects child well-being. We can't afford to ignore the findings.

In the national report, Kids Count ranked each state in 10 categories. Louisiana ranked 49th overall and 48th, 49th and 50th in many of the categories, including children in poverty. In 2003, nearly one-third of Louisiana children lived in poverty (with an income $18,660 or less for a family of two adults and two children). Half of the state's kids live in households considered low-income, or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($37,320 or less for two adults and two children).

In an essay accompanying the Kids Count report, Annie E. Casey Foundation president Douglas W. Nelson points out the hardships facing poor children. "Kids from low-income families are more likely to suffer from preventable illnesses, fail in school, become teenage parents, and become involved with the justice system," he writes. So it's no surprise that Louisiana ranks 50th in the rate of teens aged 16 to 19 who are not attending school and not working, 49th in the rate of high school dropouts, and 49th in both child and teen death rates. "None of this stuff is happening in isolation," says Shannon Johnson, Kids Count coordinator for the New Orleans-based group Agenda for Children, which breaks down the Kids Count data annually and issues a local report.

The Casey Foundation has long maintained that the best way to help disadvantaged kids is to enhance their parents' financial security. "The most basic and best way to do this is to help parents connect to and succeed in the workplace," writes Nelson. The problem is that a growing number of poor families are completely disconnected from employment. According to Kids Count, between 2000 and 2004 the number of children in low-income households where no adult worked climbed from 2.9 million to 3.9 million.

The answer is not simple. Many unemployed parents don't have access to child care, can't read at the most basic level, are mentally or physically disabled, or have limited transportation options. Some of these parents left welfare during the 1990s, when a booming economy decreased child poverty and lifted an unprecedented number of people off welfare and into the workplace. As the economy soured over the past few years, we've seen child-care cutbacks, employment declines among both single and married mothers, and a rise in child poverty and the number of families without welfare or work. Reconnecting the small but growing group of unemployed parents to the workplace is vital.

The Kids Count report concentrates on four of the most difficult employment obstacles: substance abuse, domestic violence, depression and a history of incarceration. Many unemployed parents face more than one of these barriers at one time. The best way to respond to a combination of barriers is to provide a combination of supports, including child care, health-insurance coverage, housing support, transportation assistance, after-school programs, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Studies show that the majority of welfare parents, as they begin work activities, rely on informal child-care arrangements, through a friend, neighbor or relative. But what happens if the neighbor who baby-sits becomes ill or just stops providing the service? Because most low-income jobs don't offer personal leave for these circumstances, the parent is very likely to lose that job.

"Is the problem that the parents didn't have the job skills needed, or that we didn't provide the support?" asks Sharon Parrott, director of welfare policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Louisiana has done well with some supports, including LaCHIP, which provides health insurance for many of Louisiana's poorest children. Gov. Kathleen Blanco recently signed an important bill giving Louisiana's low-income families a refundable tax credit for child-care expenses. The federal Dependent Care Tax Credit is nonrefundable, which means that families who don't owe federal income tax can't receive any money back.

Many parents who seek help for their problems find a state woefully lacking in resources. Louisiana's substance-abuse, mental-health and domestic-violence services are tremendously overburdened and underfunded. Louisiana also has the highest incarceration rate in the nation -- but only Job 1 and a few other agencies specifically serve people with criminal records, one of the biggest impediments to finding work.

We need to take a comprehensive, community-wide look at the barriers faced by unemployed parents. In other cities, successful programs screen people who enter hospitals, clinics, social-service and job-placement agencies and prisons for signs of domestic violence, substance abuse, depression and other barriers. At-risk people are then connected with programs and, as they begin work, given ongoing support from caseworkers. This assistance is critical. Only by addressing these obstacles can we hope to better the lives of at-risk children -- and of generations to follow.

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