Lane County has begun an unprecedented effort to address the problem of poverty. Public and private organizations are coming together and putting in place efforts to improve the economic self-sufficiency of Lane County’s citizens and to see to it that children living in poverty get the evidence-based programs that will help them develop the skills needed to escape from poverty.
Poverty is a big problem. The U.S. has the highest rate of child poverty of any economically developed nation. More than 20 percent of those under 18 are living in poverty. Older people have much lower rates. Here in Lane County we have a higher rate of family poverty than Oregon as a whole. United Way’s 2012 report indicates that more than 30% of families of four have incomes of less than $35,000, which is less than what a family of four needs to live on.
Poverty harms families. For one, it undermines good parenting. Imagine that you have two kids, have just lost your job and will be living on unemployment insurance—as 7.6% of people in Lane County were in April of this year. Would that make you a more patient and effective parent, or a less effective parent?
The stress that poverty causes can lead to family conflict. Research done here in Eugene by Jerry Patterson and his colleagues showed that family conflict can lead to children failing to develop the social and behavioral skills they need to get along with peers and do well in school. Children living in such stressed families are more likely to develop aggressive behavior, delinquency, depression, and drug abuse. They are more likely to fail in school and to drop out. And they are more likely to have children during their teenage years.
This is why poverty tends to be inter-generational. Anxious and aggressive people who have children in their teenage years are more likely to raise children who are similarly anxious and aggressive; their children are more likely to have all of the social, behavioral, and academic problems that their parents had.
The stress that financially challenged families experience may explain why children raised in poverty have more heart attacks in their forties and fifties than those who weren’t living in poverty as children.
All the problems I have been describing may give you a negative view of children living in financially struggling families. But I think we should think of them more like diamonds to be discovered in the sand. The children growing up in these challenged families have tremendous potential. If we nurture their development, they can make great contributions to our community. And helping families achieve financial stability will help to prevent all of the psychological, behavioral and health problems that are so costly to our community, such as academic failure, drug abuse, cigarette smoking, delinquency, and mental illness.
That is why I am happy to report that a large and growing number of public and private organizations in Lane County are coming together around the value of ensuring that every person in Lane County has the financial tools and resources to become a productive member of the community.
United Way of Lane County is playing a key leadership role in this effort. They have adopted a goal-oriented, accountable system for creating opportunities for a better life for all members of the Lane County community. Their three goals are financial stability, affordable health care, and good education. Each is essential to ending inter-generational poverty.
United Way has partnered with the American Association of Retired Person (AARP) to help families take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. In 2013 Volunteers from AARP helped low to moderate income families in Lane County recover $6.5 million in tax credits.
United Way also helps fund the 211 call line and website (211info.org) which provide referrals to supportive services, such as rental assistance, food stamps and other food assistance, dental and health care, and help with electric bills. In the second quarter of this year, they received nearly 5000 requests for assistance, about three quarters of which were from people living below the poverty level.
Increasingly, organizations like Goodwill Industries, Looking Glass, and the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO) are providing financial education to many people who never learned how to manage money.
Affordable health care is also critical for low and moderate income families. The number one reason that people file for bankruptcy is that they have incurred huge medical bills. Lack of health care is also a stressor that undermines nurturing in families. Moreover, families without health care don’t get timely treatment for physical illness or for psychological and behavioral problems that can escalate into lifelong difficulties.
It is in health care that the most ambitious efforts are underway. Oregon has created a system of Coordinated Care Organizations that are enrolling a steadily growing number of poorer families. In Lane County Trillium Community Health Plan has partnered with Lane County to provide health care for those without it and to implement evidence-based prevention that will prevent many health and behavioral problems.
Then there is education. Without a good education, children living in poverty will have a hard time escaping it. But under the leadership of United Way’s Success by Six ambitious efforts are underway to provide high quality preschools for children living in poverty. Thanks to Governor Kitzhaber’s leadership, Oregon’s Early Learning Council is implementing similar efforts throughout Oregon. High quality preschool education can significantly improve the chances that young children will arrive at Kindergarten with the verbal, social, and self-regulatory skill they need to succeed. And to be sure that what we do works, each year in Lane County we assess how many kindergartners are “ready to learn.”
At the same time, our local schools are getting better at ensuring that every child is learning. I have personally reviewed the data for the Bethel and Springfield schools. The proportion of children who are at grade level has been steadily increasing and the disparities in achievement among ethnic groups are declining.
In past essays, I have described some of the other programs being implemented in Lane County that will help poor children escape from poverty. They include the Nurse Family Partnership for high risk teenage mothers, the Good Behavior Game, which helps elementary school children learn vital self-regulation skills, School Wide Positive Behavior Support, and the Family Check-Up.
As the economy improves, the number of families living in poverty will diminish. But the activities I describe here can take us well beyond the usual dip in poverty that occurs when the economy improves. Keep in mind, that the U.S. has had a higher rate of child poverty than most developed countries for a long time. Is this what we want?
I know from reading comments on the web-version of these essays that some people are skeptical that anything can be done. And I understand and appreciate their skepticism.
But there is something new under the sun. Never before in human history have we had the detailed understanding of how to help families, schools, and communities nurture the successful development of virtually every young person. Never before have we had the methods to assess and strengthen the effectiveness of our efforts. If we continue to implement, refine, and expand our efforts, we have the potential to become a community with historically low levels of poverty and fewer young people with psychological, behavioral, and health problems than we have ever seen before.
[Published in the Eugene Register Guard on September 15, 2013.]