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From Pocono Record:

The swelling ranks of needy Monroe County children have fewer resources available to help them, according to an annual survey released Wednesday by a child advocacy group.

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children found that the rates of children who are under 5 and from low-income families grew by one-third over the first part of the 2000s.

By 2008, more than 40 percent of kids in Monroe County were living in families that earn up to twice the federal poverty level, which translates into $44,100 or less for a family of four. That level is enough to qualify for public assistance.

High poverty tends to predict other obstacles in children's lives.

"Children who live in low-income families are likely to have poor nutrition, chronic health problems, and fewer educational opportunities causing them to be less prepared for school," reads the School Readiness Report.

The findings, which were based on state and federal data, underscore a local trend that has been observed in other indicators — including surging foreclosures and free- and reduced-lunch enrollment in local schools. While Monroe County's population has increased since 2000, it also has grown significantly more poor and needy.

"On the face of it, people don't think of Pennsylvania as an impoverished state," said Joan L. Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. "These are real indications of how fragile our economic base is."

Illustrations of this fragility in Monroe County — which both reflect and drive other needs — increased across several categories.

The number of reported cases of child abuse and neglect doubled in Monroe County, from 23 to 47, between 2008 and 2009. Of these, 11 were substantiated in 2009, which reflected a near-doubling over the previous year.

The rate of births to mothers with less than a high school education ticked upwards, to 12 out of every 100, though it still was lower than the state average.

The percentage of children under 5 living in homes where English is not the first language tripled from a relatively low 1.5 percent to 4.8 percent, which is higher than the state average.

Glimmers of good news also surfaced. The number of uninsured children shrank dramatically, dropping by nearly three-quarters between 2004 and 2008.

But resources available to help troubled families dwindled. The number of subsidized child care slots dropped 20 percent between 2008 and 2009. The number of spots available for publicly funded pre-kindergarten remained static, with just 15 percent of those eligible able to use the service.

These trends strike advocates like Benso as short-sighted. She pointed to research suggesting that pre-K programs aimed at 3- and 4-year-olds can diminish the cost of special education later in life. State funding for pre-kindergarten programs was trimmed 1 percent in the current budget and frozen the year before.

"We have to take a multiyear approach to our investments," she said. "If we try to do this on the cheap, we will not get the returns on investments that we can have. We'll pay again later, and we won't give kids the foundation and opportunities they'll need later in adulthood."

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