A Letter to Governor Steve Beshear on Behalf of Kids in Kentucky

Dear Governor Beshear,

Congratulations on your re-election on November 8.  Your impressive share of the vote brings to mind that axiom from the astute political observer, Charlie Brown, who opined, “A great potential is the heaviest burden to bear.”  That is so apropos to your second term.

Let’s be honest – history is not kind to chief executives whether their second terms are at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or in the Kentucky’s Governor Mansion.  All too often a lack of focus meshes with the malaise of a caretaker.  What could have been four years of authentic progress somehow evaporates into the mist of lost opportunity.  Kentuckians in general – and Kentucky’s kids in particular – have too much on the line for anything less than a second term of progressive statesmanship.

You are going to get a ton of advice about this second term.  I want to invite, encourage and challenge you to ensure that the burden you bear – that the potential you realize – is around Kentucky’s youngest citizens.  Our vision statement at Kentucky Youth Advocates is a straight-on goal – To make Kentucky the best place in America to be young.

The second Beshear Administration has a buffet of issues from which to choose.  Surely you know that champions for children have profound concerns around K-12 issues, such as alternative education programs – an area that is finally seeing positive much-needed reforms, however work remains to strengthen professional standards, fiscal accountability and governance. The child welfare system begs for reform, be that in supports for youth who are aging out or the tragic record around child deaths and near deaths from abuse and neglect.  We worry about the Commonwealth’s penchant within juvenile justice for applying the least effective and most expensive method as we lock up children who commit status offenses like skipping school.  We cannot begin to think about children’s health without demanding a rigorous and ongoing evaluation of the new managed care system.

 

Health, juvenile justice, K-12, child welfare, and early childhood all call for your commitment and imagination.  However, if there is a singular place to begin, may I suggest that drumbeat of the second Beshear Administration must be to combat the high price of being poor.

For decades, almost one in four Kentucky kids lived in poverty.  Currently for the first time ever, MORE THAN ONE IN FOUR Kentucky kids live in poverty.  You can change the economic trajectory for Kentucky’s kids by:

  • Target focused steps towards broader tax reform.  While we clearly need comprehensive tax reform, I am uncertain whether that can be achieved given the toxic political climate of Frankfort.  But here is what can be achieved – key tax credits for low-income Kentuckians.  A state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – like its federal counterpart – can be an effective tool to fight poverty in very real ways.  The return on investment in terms of new money spent in local communities means that a refundable state EITC is a win-win … low-income working Kentuckians get needed dollars in their pocket and local economies get a boost from those dollars spent at the local hardware store, grocery and car repair shop.  That same thinking can be applied to refundable Child and Dependent Care Tax Credits.  Again, hard working low-income Kentuckians get the resources they need to ensure that their children have quality child care and local communities get an infusion of real money into the economy.  The difficulty of comprehensive tax reform is no excuse not to fight for achievable incremental improvements that help families, local communities and the state economy.
  • Grab Washington dollars.  Last year, eligible Kentuckians left $400 million in federal benefits on the table.  That is an almost unbelievable fact and illuminates a real opportunity for a “family-based stimulus” designed to break down the barriers to enrollment in common sense ways.  Kentuckians need these benefits – be that in food stamps, health insurance, energy savings or college tuition assistance.  Ohio, the Carolinas and Indiana have undertaken successful benefits access efforts to ensure that their citizens claim every possible dollar for which they are eligible.  There are clear, compelling and immediate steps that your administration can take to reclaim Washington dollars for the Commonwealth.  It will take your focus and commitment to make it happen.
  • Crack down on legal loan sharks.  There are complex policy issues when you battle poverty but this is not one.  Apply the power of your office to curb predatory practices of payday lenders, pawn shops and unconscionable bankers who “kite” refund anticipation loans.  Tough minded regulations are the antidote for the epidemic of predatory practices that rob Kentuckians of their money.  It is an area that calls for a mix of ethical outrage and political pressure from the Commonwealth’s Chief Executive.

Economic well-being impinges on every aspect of what it means to be a kid in Kentucky.  If you tackle this daunting specter of the high price of being poor, then you can leave office in 2015 knowing that your legacy is a Commonwealth with more common wealth.

Sincerely,

Terry Brooks
Executive Director, Kentucky Youth Advocates

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