Penny Mclaren 2013-01-29 00:00:00
You know the faces in your school cafeterias—but how much do you know and understand about the prevalence of poverty in your community and across the nation? Kids are remarkable, even in the face of poverty. They know when their parents are having trouble getting by. When they have to, they give up toys, pets, shoes, a place to live. They experience real, stomach-rumbling, headache-inducing hunger. They live without luxuries many of their school chums take for granted. They recognize their parents’ anxieties, frustrations and depression. And yet, they are resilient. They have hopes, and they have dreams. That’s the observation of Jezza Neumann, director of the documentary “Poor Kids,” after he interviewed dozens of children and families for the film, which he produced for “Frontline” on PBS. “[Children] still believe they can attain their dreams,” remarks Neumann, in relating his experiences filming kids in poverty. “They want to have hope. A key thing to note with these kids is that they still believe education is the way out, which is really significant, and it’s why some still have hope and aspirations for a better life.” “Poor Kids” put a human face on poverty that affects millions of children and their families right here, in what the rest of the world thinks of as affluent America. Many of these families and children had seen better times, but job loss and other unforeseen circumstances led them into poverty. You know some of them; they come into your cafeteria for free and reduced-priced meals at school. For kids, days spent just scraping by, reliant on goodwill and welfare is not how they picture their tomorrows. Despite today’s circumstances, they hold on to visions of a much brighter future for their families—and for their older selves. They believe in the chance of sports superstardom, the chance for a steady, fulfilling job, the chance for a perfect home, the chance for change. What will it take? The potential and possibilities for individual achievement is a belief engrained in American culture. And looking in the face of each child who goes through the serving line, we believe right along with them that their futures will be dazzling. But to advocate for and support the future of little Lucas or Carmelita, we have to understand the breadth of poverty and misfortune from coast to coast. A society that fails to support parents in the task of protecting the years of childhood is a society that is failing its most vulnerable. Looking at Poverty by the Numbers An estimated 46.2 million Americans live in poverty, according to a September 2012 report by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, (ASPE), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). When this magazine did its last in-depth coverage of this topic in October 2005, the government estimated that 35.9 million people were living in poverty. This rise likely is due (at least in part) to the economic recession that began in 2008. But there may be a glimmer of optimism: The 2011 15% poverty rate did not increase from 2010 levels, indicating that poverty growth may be leveling off. Poverty thresholds (definitions or measurements) are dollar amounts set by the Census Bureau, and they are considered the minimum income that is adequate to live on in this country. The original guidelines that define poverty were developed in 1963 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration. At that time, Orshansky found the cost of food to be approximately one-third of a family’s weekly budget, applying the dollar costs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Economy Food Plan for Families of Three or More Persons.” These plans were developed for “families under economic stress.” The thresholds, updated annually, continue to be based on food costs and do not take into consideration average prices for utilities, housing and other necessary living expenses. They do not vary geographically (except for residents of Alaska and Hawaii); however, they are adjusted for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index. There are 48 possible thresholds that vary according to the size of the family and the ages of its members. Following are examples of the most recently available poverty thresholds (2011 figures): • $11,702—single individual • $15,446—two people with a householder who is 65 years or older • $22,881—family of four with two children under 18 • $26,434—family of six with four children under age 18 If total family income equals or is greater than the threshold, the family is not considered to be living in “poverty.” However, if income is up to twice the threshold, the family or individual is considered “low income.” It’s important to note that some government aid programs use different thresholds to measure poverty. In addition to its 10-year census cycle, the Census Bureau conducts an annual American Community Survey, which provides data to help communities plan investments and services, including for making decisions on programs like school lunch. HHS has separate poverty guidelines used for determining financial eligibility for certain federal programs. Also, in 2009, the Census Bureau began using a Supplemental Poverty Measure, which doesn’t replace its official poverty measure, but is an additional experimental way of measuring income. Looking at Children Affected by Poverty Poverty in the United States differs from that found in less-developed countries, because those countries often are said to experience “absolute poverty,” where income may be only about $1.25 per day and all children in similar circumstances are equally deprived. In America, poverty is considered relative, because it’s determined by a lack of access to what are considered basic needs in this country. Measuring Child Poverty, a report published by UNICEF last year, outlined how children are deprived in the world’s richest countries. It found that some countries do a better job than others in protecting their children from poverty. Indeed, in comparison to other developed nations, the United States doesn’t do very well, according to UNICEF’s measures. Of the 35 wealthiest nations cited in the report, only two countries have 20% or more children living in poverty: Romania and the United States. The lowest rates among the other 33 countries were below 7%, specifically in Cyprus, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway. ASPE estimates that of all Americans living in poverty, 21.9% or 16 million, are children. The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), associated with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, finds that 44% of children live in low-income families (both “poor” and “near poor”). NCPP’s report, Basic Facts About Low-Income Children (2012), also revealed the following: • “Children represent 24% of the overall U.S. population, yet they comprise 34% of all people living in poverty. • The percentage of children in low-income families varies by where they live: It is highest in the South, where 48% of children live in low-income families, compared to 45% of children in the West; 42% in the Midwest; and 36% of children in the Northeast. • A little more than half (51%) of children in rural areas live in low-income families, compared to 42% in urban areas.” See the box on page 22 for more statistics about American children living in poverty. “No one can seriously claim that it is the child’s fault if economies turn down or if parents are unemployed or low-paid,” states Peter Adomson, author of UNICEF’s report. Thus, “A society that fails to support parents in the task of protecting the years of childhood is a society that is failing its most vulnerable.” Looking at Jobs and Wages The span of the last five years, 2007 to 2012, is the period now being called the Great Recession and its slow recovery. Experts consider this the longest period of economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many place the blame for rising poverty rates on jobs that have disappeared and wages that don’t support a middle-income lifestyle. This certainly is a key factor. Studies show that 1 in 13 adults of working age is unemployed in an average month. In December 2012, the unemployment rate was unchanged at 7.8%, or 12.2 million persons, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) stood at 4.8 million, accounting for 39.1% of the total unemployed. Julia Isaacs, a researcher with The Urban Institute and author of The Recession’s Ongoing Impact on Children, 2012, found that parents with dependent children make up 29% of the unemployed; an estimated 6.3 million children under age 18 are living with an unemployed parent during an average month. “Millions of children and families are still much worse off than they were in 2007, before the recession began,” Isaacs concludes. “More children live in families with a parent out of work, families that turn to SNAP benefits (see page 38) to help pay their grocery bills and/or families with cash income less than the poverty threshold. There has been a nearly four-fold increase in the number of children with long-term unemployed parents.” Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families, of the Brookings Institution, notes that the work rates of men in general have fallen about 9% and 23% for black men in particular. Although work rates for women have not declined, they have stagnated. This is bad news, as work is the way out of poverty, he emphasizes. The “uneven record of maintaining high levels of work is a leading cause of poverty in America,” Haskins writes. “Without high work levels, it will be difficult to mount an effective fight against poverty.” Ten states raised their minimum wage rates last month in a stated attempt to help their lowest-paid workers out of poverty. Washington state has the highest minimum wage rate in the country at $9.19 per hour, although some cities have higher minimum wage laws, such as San Francisco at $10.34 per hour. The federal minimum wage rate is $7.25. Proponents of such wage hikes maintain that they are essential for low-income workers to purchase needed basics (and stimulate the economy), while critics contend that it’s a burden small businesses can’t bear and can lead to further layoffs. Millions of children and families are still much worse off than they were in 2007, before the recession began. There has been a nearly four-fold increase in the number of children with long-term unemployed parents. Looking at Your Opportunities to Make a Difference All of these statistics paint a picture of poverty, giving you greater context for the enormity of the problem, beyond your day-to-day observations, especially of the children who rely on school meals. But what else can you do to address poverty and hunger in your community—and across the nation? Be certain of your role. Of course, you already are doing something every day that makes a difference: feeding hungry kids. That’s a huge contribution. But being willing to talk about it is also important. With so much media focus on the nutrition content of school meals, sometimes the value of these programs in hunger relief gets overlooked. “People need to recognize the importance of the safety net programs, like school breakfast, school lunch and the summer food program,” says Lucia Kaiser, PhD, a specialist in the cooperative extension of the department of nutrition at University of California, Davis (UC-Davis). “Everyone in the community needs to know what an important contribution school food programs are [making] for the children in poverty in that community.” As a school nutrition professional, you can ensure that your family, friends and neighbors all understand what you do for children; and, as they understand, awareness will grow. Be tolerant. There are many misperceptions about people who find themselves relying on government assistance, and some are disproportionately harsh and lacking in simple compassion. “They brought their predicament on their own heads.” “They are weak.” “They are lazy.” “They have a car and a TV, so they aren’t really poor.” You know better. And you can challenge judgmental thinking. Certainly, you know that the children living in poverty have no choices. It’s also likely that you know of parents, neighbors—maybe even your own colleagues—who struggle through no personal failure, but sheer bad luck, that then compounds itself. And you can “preach” the golden rule. Michelle Singletary, a columnist at The Washington Post, notes, “Do you give to those who didn’t save or act fiscally responsible? Do you help the seemingly unworthy? Yes, you do. You help if you can afford to provide assistance. For one thing, you help because perhaps there was a time—or will be a time—that you received help when you didn’t deserve it…. We can’t have a test for who deserves help and who doesn’t.” Be willing to reach out. Do you have time to give elsewhere, beyond the school cafeteria, in your community? Duane Sich is executive director of Friends of the Carpenter, a faith-based day shelter in Vancouver, Wash., which offers a place for at-risk people—most homeless—to hang out during the day when shelters are closed. “It is humbling that people come to us just to have a place to use the bathroom during the day,” notes Sich, adding that so many appreciate the respite from the difficult and demeaning life on the street. He notes that one of the attractions is having an opportunity to connect with others, even develop friendships with volunteers. Just being present and available is a rewarding gift. You might be able to put your own foodservice expertise to valuable use. Consider Connie Schneider, PhD, RD, who is youth, families and communities director at UC-Davis. She works with a food and nutrition program that teaches families that are food insecure how to stretch their dollars to prepare the most nutritious and satisfying meals possible. An offshoot program offers similar skills training to children. “It absolutely makes a difference to families,” reports Schneider, citing assessments that show that 72% of program participants improve in one or more food practices, and 39% report an increased consumption of nutritious fruits and vegetables. Check out similar programs that might already be available in your community— or consider starting one of your own! Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine bonuscontent for inspiring stories of school nutrition professionals who are taking their passion and compassion beyond the cafeteria. Be more informed. Continue to read articles like this one to understand the complex issues of poverty and hunger. Start by checking the following web-based resources working to “further enhance the understanding of the nature, causes, correlates and effects of poverty, and programs and policies to ameliorate it.” • The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, www.irp.wisc.edu/index.htm • The UC-Davis Poverty Research Center, at the University of California, Davis, http://poverty.ucdavis.edu • The Poverty Research Center at Stanford University, California, (the newest center, which was created in 2006), www.recessiontrends.org Looking Toward the Future Poverty is so much more than what statistics report. Perhaps you see the hard times reflected in the families who are now applying for free or reduced-price meals for their kids. Perhaps someone in your personal circle has encountered bad times, struggling with unemployment, hunger and flirting with homelessness. What can you do? Keep doing what you’re doing—and more. Never forget that you have the power to keep the hopes and dreams alive for some of our nation’s neediest children. SNAPSHOT ■ Poverty measurements for federal assistance weigh income against average food costs, not counting utilities, housing and other expenses. ■ Among other wealthy nations, the U.S. has one of the highest rates of children living in poverty. ■ Sharing your experiences serving needy children with friends and neighbors helps to build awareness. Poor Kids Where is childhood poverty most prevalent in the United States? And who is most affected? Some statistics may surprise you. According to The National Center for Children in Poverty, there are more white children that are poor than any other group. “By the sheer numbers, and contrary to some common stereotypes about the country’s poor, America has more white children living in low-income families than any other race. More than 12.1 million white children live in low-income families; compared to: ■ 10.7 million Hispanic children; ■ 6.5 million black children; ■ 1 million Asian children; ■ 400,000 American Indian children; and ■ 1.3 million children of other races. That said, black and Hispanic children are more likely to live in low-income families than white children: 64% of black children and 63% of Hispanic children live in such families, compared to 31% of white children.“ Research from The Urban Institute finds that “children in every state are experiencing the effects of the recession, with children in some states hit harder than others. Most states (45) had markedly higher poverty rates in 2011 than during the pre-recessionary period.” Mississippi is the state with the greatest rate of poverty among children: 32%. Other states with high rates of children living in poverty are New Mexico, the District of Columbia and Louisiana, each with rates above 30%. The state with the lowest rate of children in poverty is New Hampshire, at 12%; it is followed by Maryland, Alaska and North Dakota. While cities are often thought to have the most poor, rural areas and suburbs are among those areas most affected by the Great Recession, many people in these areas got caught in the housing boom and bust. Elizabeth Kneebone, a researcher with the Brookings Institution, estimates that the increase in poverty in American suburbs has been 53%, while the increase in cities was a significantly lower 26%. Making matters worse, in the suburbs, say experts, there is less access to the kind of services available to the poor that are found in urban neighborhoods. “These suburbs don’t have a history of how to help people,” observes Kneebone. This doesn’t mean that the situation in U.S. cities is not also of great concern. Gains made in addressing poverty in the 1990s have been lost in the decline of the economy. Falling incomes, higher crime, poor performing schools, poor health outcomes, lower infrastructure and community investments wind up compounding the barriers. BONUS WEB CONTENT School nutrition professionals already make such a difference in the lives of the hungry school-age children in their communities. But many School Nutrition readers are going above and beyond in their efforts to help provide hunger relief. You can read their stories online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. The uneven record of maintaining high levels of work is a leading cause of poverty in America.
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