We are fortunate to live in a relatively affluent county, yet even here in Johnson County, the percentage of people living below the poverty line is 17.7. That translates to well over 25,000 of your neighbors, many of them children.
Last week I attended the Poverty Summit convened by the National Association of Counties in Fort Worth, Texas. While the irony of discussing these issues in a swanky downtown hotel with fellow elected officials jetting in from all over the country is not lost on me, it was an eye-opening experience that taught me that there is much that can be done at the county level to help alleviate poverty, and yes, unsurprisingly, it does cost money.
One of the speakers was Kent Scribner, Superintendent of the Fort Worth Independent School District, and he put it quite succinctly: “Large, complex social problems require large, complex social solutions.” These efforts, if they are to last, need to be focused on children. Because if I have one take-away from this conference, it is the inter-generational aspect of poverty. Consider:
- 50% of kids born to poor parents remain poor through adulthood
- Kids born to poor parents who don’t have a high school degree fare even worse
- Yet among kids born to non-poor parents, only 4% become poor in adulthood
So, if you were fortunate enough to be born to a family of means, relatively speaking, your odds of staying that way are quite high. But if you were born poor, escaping that is very difficult. And then the same applies to your kids, and theirs. This is often the result of the toxic stress poverty places on children, especially when they are very young. 85% of brain development happens before preschool. Toxic stress, experienced as a child, leads not just to behavioral problems, but to chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, which put far more demands on society than the small investments that could prevent it.
Once kids are in school, it is vital that they are afforded a calm safe environment, and emotional safety is part of that. No child can learn who does not feel safe. Investing in behavioral professionals on staff in the schools can help. If we are willing to support it, education can be, as Bill Gates once called it, “the greatest socio-economic elevator ever devised.”
High-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children (not to mention pre-natal care for their mothers) has been shown to provide a 13% return on investment through better outcomes for children, their families, and their communities. It leads to better health, increased graduation rates, adult income and parental income, with decreased need for special education, remediation, social services and criminal justice costs.
Literacy is also vital, and the Fort Worth Schools have set a goal, which they believe they can reach by 2025, of have 100% of 3rd graders reading at grade level. That milepost is important because research shows clearly that this is the age at which children go from learning to read, to reading to learn.
Of course, race is a serious factor. Data shows that 10% of white kids live out their childhood in poverty, yet in Hispanic households it’s 27% and among African-American kids, it’s 35%. If you widen that frame to include kids who spent at least one year of their lives in poverty, those numbers more than double – one in three white kids, but 3 in 4 black kids spend at least one year of their childhoods in poverty.
Here in Johnson County, our Social Services department, led by Lynette Jacoby, does “yeoman’s work” in the fight against intergenerational poverty, and the Empowerment program there, headed by Laurie Nash, has a particular focus on birth-to-three programs. But they are cash-strapped, and the state funding keeps getting cut. Medicaid privatization is having horrible impacts, as well, especially in our Mental health and Disabilities Services department
Counties can serve a convening role, helping to bring together various governmental and non-governmental entities to break through silos and power narratives to build a systemic approach. In addition, counties and cities can approach planning and development with a more purposeful, holistic approach, including mixed-income housing and community wellness programs, as described in the efforts of PurposeBuiltCommunities.org.
The goal is not equality, it’s equity. It’s not about addressing a problem, it’s about redressing inequity. There are numerous, massive impediments to be removed and some of them are obvious. Take employment for example. Today the US unemployment rate hovers around 4%. Here in Johnson County it’s even lower. So why is our county’s poverty rate 17.7%? Because of underemployment. News flash: It’s about the wages. Johnson County made great strides in that area, and next week you can see a presentation of the data that will bear this out during a presentation at our Thursday, 12/21 meeting. But as we all know, that state legislature put the screws to the higher minimum wage, contrary to all evidentiary data. Elections do indeed have consequences.
We need to reframe the debate. For decades my colleagues in the other party have insisted on “slashing government spending,” and since they framed the debate, they won the debate. But what’s needed is not spending. It’s investment. The ROI on investing in young children is evident, and the longer we wait, the harder it will be.