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August 16, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Vigo County continues to dwell at the bottom of child-poverty stats

TERRE HAUTE — This community offers lots of convincing reasons for people to call it “home.”

The city and county parks, from Deming to Prairie Creek. The college campuses, and the energy their students inject into Terre Haute. Music, from the Blues at the Crossroads Festival to the symphony. Active churches, both historic and modern. Strong public schools. A top-flight library. The Arts Corridor. Diverse restaurants. Bookstores with variety. Coffeehouses with personality. A spirit of volunteerism. Affordable housing. Relative safety, peace and quiet.

The good life surrounds us here.

Yet, it’s so hard to see “Terre Haute” and “Vigo County” consistently positioned at or near the top of Indiana child-poverty rankings.

It happened again this month. The annual Kids Count survey, produced by the respected Annie E. Casey Foundation, analyzed 16 areas of child well-being on national, state and local levels. The study accounted for health care, household and community situations, education and economic factors. This year, Indiana ranked a lowly 31st among the 50 states, overall. In specific categories, Indiana rated 36th in education (most Hoosier kids, 61 percent, don’t attend preschool), and 34th in health. Statewide, 21.6 percent of children under age 18 live in poverty.

The predicament is even more troubling locally.

According to those latest Kids Count figures, 27 percent of school-age youngsters in Vigo County live below the poverty level. That family-income line is set at just $22,113. Despite that low threshold, this college community blessed with five higher learning institutions ranks 81st out of 92 Indiana counties.

The bottom end of child-poverty statistics is familiar territory for Vigo County. In a report by the Indiana Commission on Childhood Poverty released last December, Vigo County shouldered the state’s highest poverty rate for kids at 28.7 percent. That number matters. A lot. Health-care costs are high for youths lacking proper nutrition and preventive medical attention. Children living in poverty, on average, begin their school careers with fewer academic skills, and may require years of remediation. The long-term ramifications, especially for teenagers who wind up dropping out of school, include a greater tendency to commit crimes and to live as adults in poverty.

In many cases, parents earning incomes below the poverty line are working long hours or multiple jobs in this tough economy. (According to the commission, 1 out of 3 kids in Indiana lives in low-income working families.) But low incomes here are even lower than in many Hoosier communities.

In 2009, the Legislature created the commission to evaluate the costs and effects of childhood poverty. Lawmakers also asked the commission to formulate a plan to cut the childhood poverty rate in half by 2020. The commission worked through 2010 and 2011, conducting public forums around the state. It issued its report and 26 recommendations on New Year’s Eve.

The Legislature, altered by the 2010 elections, focused on other pressing matters last spring, such as right-to-work and immigration, rather than childhood poverty.

“It was not a good time for the report to come out, given all the other agendas in the General Assembly,” said Michael Patchner, the dean of the Indiana University School of Social Work and chairman of the commission.

The coming legislative session may not be any more welcoming. The author of the bill that created the commission, Rep. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, doesn’t expect the panel’s 26 recommendations — two of which are building a statewide database on poverty issues and funding for early-childhood literacy programs — to see much action in 2013.

“I think the trend is away from more government services and more government intervention,” Kruse said by telephone Wednesday. State and federal programs already in place serve kids in poverty, he added.

Yet the problem persists.

The response falls, then, to local communities, and Vigo County schools (where more than half of the students in the corporation receive free or reduced-price lunches), service groups, charities and churches already address the fallout of kids growing up needy. They understand the day-to-day complications in a city in which the median household income is $31,117 — well below the state median of $47,697, and even farther under the national median of $51,914.

The problem, though, isn’t always seen by everyone else.

“I think poverty is often hidden,” Patchner said.

Let’s all keep looking more closely.

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

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