News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

April 3, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Vigo County struggles with persistent child poverty

TERRE HAUTE — The statistics are hard to accept, especially for a community proud of its progress.

The situation those numbers expose is difficult to change.

Yet, it’s real. In Vigo County, more than one of every four kids under the age of 18 live below the poverty level. More than 30 percent under age 5 live in poverty. Calculations by one source — the Indiana Youth Institute and the Indiana University Business Research Center — lists Vigo County with the state’s highest child poverty rate, at 28.7 percent. Another — the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute — sets Vigo’s under-18 child poverty rate at 25 percent, fifth-highest in Indiana.

Either way, too many children here struggle to get basic necessities.

The predicament isn’t new. Vigo County has topped state child poverty rankings before. Unless cultural dynamics change, it probably will again.

“There’s no magic bullet,” said Tom Steiger, a professor of sociology at Indiana State University.

The impulse explanation: It’s all about the need for more good-paying jobs.

Indeed, parents need a substantial paycheck to provide for their kids. Still, the unemployment rate in Vigo County (10 percent in February) ranks in the middle of the pack — 50th from the top, out of 92 Indiana counties — and just above the state’s overall rate of 9.4 percent. Why, then, is child poverty so much more prevalent here?

Answers are complex, but some underlying factors to Vigo County’s persistently high child poverty rates can be found deeper in the statistics. The percentage of kids under 18 living below the poverty rate is 10.3 percent for families of married couples, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among kids under age 5 experiencing that situation, 13.2 percent live in poverty. Fitting national trends, the child poverty rates in Vigo County are significantly higher for families in the Census Bureau’s category “female householder, no husband present” — 47.3 percent of kids under 18, and 56.4 percent of children under 5.

Clearly, as Steiger pointed out in a 2009 commentary in the Tribune-Star, poverty strikes harder at females and young people. Vigo County is vulnerable. It ranked seventh highest among Indiana counties in births to unmarried parents at 41.1 percent in 2001, the most recent numbers available from the state Department of Health’s Epidemiology Resource Center. Not surprisingly, the teen population pushes that percentage up; among births to 18- or 19-year-old mothers throughout Indiana in 2007, 85.8 percent were unmarried.

The tough economic situation faced by those young parents and their kids may seem hidden or distant for some in the community, but not for folks working in local schools. More than half of all Vigo County School Corp. students (52 percent) qualified for free or reduced lunches in 2010, according to the Indiana Department of Education. In an eye-opening story last Sunday by Tribune-Star reporter Sue Loughlin, educators explained, firsthand, that children hit by poverty often start school with fewer academic skills. Despite their best intentions, parents may be too busy working multiple jobs to put food on the table to spend quality time with the kids, as Vigo superintendent Dan Tanoos pointed out. For other kids living in poverty, their only meals are eaten at school.

When proper nutrition is lacking, learning becomes more difficult.

Not coincidentally, education plays a role in poverty. High school dropouts are far more likely to wind up in periodic joblessness, on government assistance or serving jail time, according to the Alliance for Excellence in Education. Also, the more education a person has, the higher their income. Fittingly, Vigo County’s median household income is the eighth-lowest in Indiana, at $37,876 — well below the state level of $45,427.

The question confronting the community is whether expectations are too low. Are many of the contributing factors to child poverty — particularly the rates of young, unmarried folks having children — simply accepted as part of the culture in Vigo County, a place where families tend to settle for multiple generations? “That’s the part we don’t want to talk about at public policy levels,” Steiger said, “because you can’t do anything about it” governmentally.

Undoubtedly, numerous agencies and organizations in the county, including the schools, work hard to address the effects of child poverty, and to educate young people to avoid such a plight or study their way into a better job. Those warriors face a tall task, as the local statistics show. How can the rest of the community help?

The focus of education for young women can’t be underestimated. “One of the first things [aid agencies] do in developing countries to fight poverty is to educate women,” Steiger said. The goal, he added, “is getting their horizons changed.” In Vigo County, what do teenage girls see on their horizons? College? A job? Marriage, then a family?

In reality, the answers must come in many places: homes, classrooms, churches, doctor’s offices, workplaces, colleges, clinics and job assistance outlets. As Steiger put it, “That’s a community issue.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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