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Child Poverty in America

by STEVEN HIGGS

Downtown Bloomington, Indiana with its upscale restaurants, bustling bars and East Coast-style boutiques and nail salons – all brimming with the rich and their progeny – has always advanced a false image of the Southern Indiana town so many describe with utopian superlatives. The elite do indeed do well here. The state’s richest man lived and died here. Indiana University professors, on average, knock down $128,400 a year, according to the American Association of University Professors. A handful of wealthy speculators, developers and their professional support networks have enriched themselves turning the city into a playground for the rich.

But for the rest, the latest 2012 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation presents a more accurate image of IU’s allegedly idyllic hometown. Nearly three in 10 Monroe County children in 2011 were poor enough to receive free lunches in the county’s two school systems, according to the annual report. Another 7 percent qualified for reduced-price lunches.

The 18.1 percent of Monroe County children the Kids Count report found living in poverty in 2010 rose from 17.3 percent in 2006. And while that figure is nearly 4 percent less than the national average of 22 percent, the local trend line reflects those of the state and nation – up.

“In 2000, the official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, was 17 percent,” Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick McCarthy wrote in the report’s foreword. “From 2000 to 2010, the number of children living in poverty jumped from 12.2 million to 15.7 million, an increase of nearly 30 percent.”

The three categories that registered the sharpest increases over time are:

* Children living in high-poverty areas – up 22 percent,

* Children whose parents lack secure employment – up 22 percent, and

*Children living in poverty – up 16 percent.

The price these children and society will pay for their descent into indigence will be high and long-lasting, McCarthy and the Casey report authors warn.

“Growing up in poverty is strongly associated with bad outcomes for children,” they say. “On almost every measure, children who experience chronic or deep poverty, especially when they are young, face tougher developmental and social barriers to success.”

And the impacts are not limited to those who spend all of their early years in poverty, the report authors continue. “Even brief experiences of poverty in early childhood can have lasting effects on health, education, employment and earning power.”

***

The Casey Foundation does in fact use a conservative measure of economic hardship in its Kids Count Data Books, specifically the official federal poverty measure, a politically produced farce that fails on all levels.

“This statistic measures only the cash income available to families, without accounting for many safety net supports that a family might receive, such as federal tax credits, child care and housing vouchers, and food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps),” the report says. “The official measure also fails to adequately reflect the ways in which costs – like housing and child care – vary from region to region and have changed dramatically over the past half-century.”

Researchers have, in fact, quantified basic living expenses in specific localities and found that the federal measure of $23,050 for a family of four meets only about half its basic needs, the report continues.

“Families need an income of roughly twice the federal poverty level to cover basic expenses for housing, food, transportation, health care and child care,” the Kids Count report says. “In 2010, 44 percent (32.2 million) of U.S. children lived in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.”

And the number of Americans who live in poverty is approaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, according to a July 2 Associated Press story. In advance of new Census data on poverty due this fall, the news service surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, partisan and nonpartisan, and found a broad consensus that the official poverty rate will climb as high as 15.7 percent, up from 15.1 percent from 2010.

“Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor,” the story said. “More discouraged workers are giving up on the job market, leaving them vulnerable as unemployment aid begins to run out.”

Poverty is also spreading into the suburbs, the article said. “Voters are coping with a new norm of living hand to mouth.”

***

The Casey report summarizes “overall child well-being” by analyzing federal and state data in 16 categories that measure economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Six poverty-related measures, found in the first and last categories, include:

*  Children living in poverty,

* Children whose parents lack secure employment,

* Children living in households with a high housing cost burden,

* Teens not in school and not working,

*Children in single-parent families, and

* Children living in high-poverty areas.

Indiana ranked No. 31 among the 50 states for overall child well-being. One of 12 states identified as the Midwest, Indiana is 11th, just one position above Michigan.

The bottom 17 states in the overall measurement are located in the Southeast, Southwest and Appalachia. “With the exception of California, the 17 lowest ranked states in terms of child well-being are located in these regions,” the report says.

The top four states for overall child well-being are in the Northeast – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Jersey.

***

The New York Times thrust Bloomington into the national poverty narrative with a story in late 2011 that identified the city as the third poorest of its size in the country. The Times based its ranking on Census data, which fail to take into account skewing caused by the city’s dominant student population, most of whom report little to no income.

In-depth stories in both the Bloomington Herald-Times and Indiana Daily Student dispensed with the notion that the city rivals Reading, Pa., and Michael Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., in terms of families living in grinding despair. Data from City-Data.com show the vast majority of the 39.9 percent of Bloomington residents Census data say live below the poverty line are in the 18-24 age range.

IU students, however, do not skew the community’s free lunch data. Between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of Bloomington school kids qualifying for free lunches grew from 17.6 percent 29.2 percent, the Casey report says.

Neither do IU students populate the sidewalks, parks, alleys, shelters, libraries, food pantries and other places where the homeless and hungry congregate in growing numbers.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.

Steven Higgs is an environmental journalist and photographer living in Bloomington, Ind. He owns and operates Natural Bloomington: Ecotours and More. His new book A Guide to Natural Areas of Southern Indiana is scheduled for release by Indiana University Press on April 20, 2016.

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