by Rob Thompson, Guest Contributor

Pat McCrory and Walter Dalton are engaged in a cutthroat battle to be the next governor of North Carolina. Up to this point, both candidates have focused their messages primarily on job creation and jumpstarting the economy, along with a healthy dose of personal and political attacks (e.g. McCrory’s tax returns and Dalton’s ties to Gov. Perdue). What they’re most assuredly not talking about are North Carolina’s children, and specifically children living in poverty.

Irrespective of political philosophy, our elected officials have a responsibility to use their power and influence to ensure that all children are safe, healthy and well-educated. Unfortunately, neither McCrory nor Dalton appears all that interested in articulating a plan for children. Aside from a superficial debate about K-12 education, we haven’t heard how either candidate would address the range of serious problems facing children in North Carolina.

Perhaps the starkest of these problems is childhood poverty. One in four of North Carolina’s children live below the poverty line and 11.5 percent live in “deep” poverty (for a family of four the poverty line is $22,350 per year and deep poverty is $11,100). Poverty means a lot more than struggling to get by in the present — it means limited opportunities and poor outcomes in the future. Children raised in poverty are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to be incarcerated than their peers from economically secure households.

The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that, at four-years-old, children who grow up below the poverty line are already, on average, 18 months behind what is normal for their age group and that this gap is still present at the age of ten. If educational achievement is a key indicator for a child’s future success, then children in poverty are already starting out at a significant disadvantage. Short of eradicating child poverty, there are policies and programs that can close the achievement gap, particularly early education. Unfortunately, neither candidate is talking about his ideas on this front.

The implications of poverty stretch far beyond education. Research shows that children raised in poverty are more likely to experience mental health disorders, exhibit anti-social behaviors and suffer from physical health problems largely as a result of the stress caused by living in poverty. Like education, behavioral and physical health problems have serious implications for the child’s future success. By ignoring them, we’re jeopardizing the future health and prosperity of these children and our state.

My question for Mayor McCrory and Lt. Governor Dalton is this: What’s your plan for North Carolina’s next generation, particularly children who are living in poverty? And, before you answer, I’m going to take away your stock answer — ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education is important, but it’s not enough. Children aren’t educated in a vacuum. Just like nearly every other indicator of well-being, a child’s performance in school is directly correlated to his or her economic security, so that’s where we need to start.

Perhaps McCrory and Dalton believe eliminating childhood poverty is unachievable and not worth talking about. If that’s the case, then let’s talk about how we can mitigate the impact of poverty by implementing smart policies and programs. Certainly, providing a first-class education to all children is a necessity, but we can’t stop there.

Children from low-income families need health care and many need intensive mental health services. They need financial aid to access a higher education. They need child care, so their parents can work. They need a safety net to ensure that there’s always food on the table and always a roof overhead.

What is the plan for North Carolina’s children? Our next governor should be willing to ask, discuss and ultimately answer that question. : :

— Rob Thompson is the Executive Director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children,