Being a kid … tougher than it used to be

by | The Journal Gazette

2009-09-27-KidIt’s a bad time to be a child in Allen County.

Statistics compiled by the Indiana Youth Institute show the percentage of children facing problems from poverty to violence is up, while the percentage of children with advantages such as quality day care and two-parent families is down.

And those statistics only date to 2007, before the recession began. As the national economy collapsed, officials say, the problems facing many children became even worse.

“I think all people are suffering regardless of age,” said Bill Stanczykiewicz, president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute. “If Dad loses his job, it’s excruciatingly difficult for him and his entire family, including the children.”

 

The statistics were compiled from a broad range of sources by the Indiana Youth Institute, which provides resources for Indiana agencies that promote the healthy development of children.

Certainly, not every child in Allen County is at risk, and the vast majority will enjoy a healthy, financially secure childhood. But the number of children for whom the basics in life are no longer a given is growing, and the community’s ability to help those children is diminishing.

The safety net – already overwhelmed before the recession – has been getting bigger holes.

“There’s no doubt we’re in a time period that because of the struggling economy, there are more people in need of service and fewer dollars to provide that service,” Stanczykiewicz said. “That’s true for both private dollars and government.”

‘Staggering’ stats

Even before the economy imploded and jobs dried up, the number of Allen County children in poverty was growing.

From 2000 to 2007, the monthly average number of families issued food stamps more than doubled, to 32,294, and the monthly average number of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits increased 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of Allen County children who met the government’s definition of poor rose from more than one in every 10 to nearly one in every six – and the government’s definition of poverty has been criticized for decades as far too low.

“Those poverty numbers are pretty staggering,” said Joseph Conrad, executive director of Community Action of Northeast Indiana. “We’re looking at – using official figures – close to a quarter of the people in our communities are in poverty.”

CANI serves LaGrange, Steuben, Noble, DeKalb, Whitley and Allen counties, with a combined population of about 542,000. Conrad said that in 2000, 122,651 of them – 24 percent – live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which he said is a figure much closer to the level at which a family can afford its basic needs.

“If that was the case in 2000, and it was much worse in 2007, Lord knows what it is right now,” Conrad said. “And that number’s for our entire service area. There are pockets of Allen County where over two-thirds of the population is in need of assistance just to meet basic needs.”

There is also the percentage of children receiving free lunches at school: That number rose from almost one in every six to more than one in four – 26.3 percent of Allen County children received free lunch at school in 2007 and an additional 6.7 percent received reduced-price lunches. Even those numbers are believed to be low, however, because many children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches do not accept them.

Stanczykiewicz said children often are not getting the help they are entitled to.

“One of the keys to this is we need to ensure all the kids who are eligible for these various programs are enrolled, whether it’s Medicaid, free lunch or whatever,” he said. “For the 21st Century Scholars program (which can give Hoosier children a free college education), they estimate as many as half of the eligible kids are not enrolled.”

If there is a silver lining to the list of depressing numbers, however, it is this: The number of Allen County children enrolled in Hoosier Healthwise – a health insurance program for the poor – has more than doubled from 2000 to 2007.

Unhealthy starts

The increase in children enrolled in the state’s health program has not stemmed other problems, however.

The percentage of low-birth-weight babies born to Allen County mothers rose from 7.8 percent in 2000 to 9.5 percent in 2006. Low birth weight is an early indicator of an increased risk for serious health problems in newborns, lasting disabilities and even death, according to the March of Dimes. Nationally, the group says, about 8 percent of babies born have low birth weights.

The number of mothers who reported smoking during pregnancy dropped during the same time period, but it was still nearly one in every six. The number of mothers who received prenatal care during the first trimester of their pregnancy was also up, but even then almost one in every five did not.

In the meantime, the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers in Allen County rose from almost 35 percent to more than 40 percent.

“This is not to damn (single parents), because certainly children can succeed in a single-parent family, and two examples of that are the president of the United States and the newest Supreme Court justice,” Stanczykiewicz said. “But statistically, the fastest way to poverty is to live with a single parent.”

And while the number of Allen County children in Hoosier Healthwise is up, it is nowhere near the number of people who have lost their jobs and now have no health insurance or have coverage that is in jeopardy, said Renetta Williams, executive director of HealthVisions of Fort Wayne, a non-profit dedicated to reducing health disparities.

“We’re seeing more and more people who are unemployed and more and more people who do not have health insurance. It is impacting families,” Williams said. “Another thing we’re seeing is the number of people who need mental health care” but can’t get it because they don’t have insurance.

‘Desperate things’

"We believe there is hope, and when you have hope, you continue."

Renetta Williams
HealthVisions of Fort Wayne

Experts have long known that the fastest route out of poverty is education. But the numbers for Allen County on that front are grim, too.

The number of licensed child-care spaces per 100 children up to age 4 dropped slightly between 2000 and 2006, from 22 spaces per 100 kids to 21.8.

And while the number of children in poverty was growing, the number getting child-care vouchers – a state program to pay for child care so parents can work – dropped by 32 percent, to 4,592. The average number of children on the waiting list for those vouchers, however, increased 26 times, to 380.

“The federal dollars that provide voucher money has been frozen for more than 10 years,” said Pam Leffers, program director at the Early Childhood Alliance. “It’s really a horrible situation. Plus, the eligibility rate is so low, it’s really only the sub-sub-working poor that qualify.”

Leffers said licensed child care has many advantages over unlicensed care, but those advantages often mean a higher cost.

“Families are just not able to afford right now what they’d like to have (in child care),” Leffers said. “So they’re making do with situations they might not be comfortable with.”

CANI’s Conrad worries about what could happen if the current trends continue.

“You gotta ask yourself the question, how can a community sustain itself with those kinds of numbers? When you’re looking at situations where two-thirds of the population can’t sustain itself and meet their basic needs, how long will they remain at peace?” Conrad said. “What is the price of doing nothing? People who are in despair do desperate things. When your kids are hungry, you do things you wouldn’t normally do.”

At the same time, there is hope, because every day, officials see incredible generosity from those in the community still able to assist their neighbors.

“That’s the uplifting part,” Conrad said. “People really do help.”

HealthVisions’ Williams has seen the same thing.

“It’s more people with less resources. That’s what we see on a daily basis,” she said. “But we believe there is hope, and when you have hope, you continue.”

This article was originally published in The Journal Gazette.