Downturn hit state youth hard

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Children’s advocates are deeply concerned the economic downturn is eroding opportunities for the next generation.
Nationally, one in five children is living in poverty – with incomes below $21,756 for a family of four. In Mississippi, that number is nearly one in three, based on Kids Count data formally released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The annual look at the well-being of children and families found that child poverty rates were up by nearly 20 percent compared with 2000.
Since 2007, the economic downturn has hit children with families particularly hard. Foreclosures affected some 28,000 Mississippi children since 2007, and 89,000 kids in the state had at least one unemployed parent in 2010.
“The big picture is that it has wiped out much of the early 1990s gains for low-income families,” said Laura Speer, Kids Count national coordinator.
Families living in poverty have less secure employment, fewer resources to handle daily living and the children are at higher risk of getting off track on the road to becoming successful adults.
“Children are particularly vulnerable to unplanned frequent moves and changes in schools,” said Mississippi State University researcher Linda Southward, who is the Mississippi Kids Count coordinator. “All those things negatively impact success in schools.”
Northeast Mississippi social service organizations say the statistics reflect what they are seeing on the ground.
“It used to be 200 to 300 families a month,” said Sally Zemek, executive director of the Union County Good Samaritan Center food pantry. “In 2010, it was 400 to 500 families a month. … We went up 35 percent in the number of children we serve.”
As the need is growing, the USDA – a mainstay for food banks – has less food to share with food banks. For August, Union County Good Samaritan got 1,700 pounds, significantly less than the 5,000 pounds of food it usually gets.
“Next month, we’re not sure we’ll get any,” Zemek said.
Right now churches in particular are making up the difference.
“So far, we have not had to close or turn anybody away,” Zemek said. “But it’s going to be a juggling act for a while.”
Homelessness is touching more families, too, and there are fewer resources with low-income housing.
“We used to see families occasionally,” every six months to a year, said Susan Gilbert, social services director for The Salvation Army in Tupelo. They would stay a night and move quickly into a more stable situation.
In the past year, there’s only been one month the lodge didn’t have any families with children.
“And they’re staying a week or two to a month,” Gilbert said.
The current Red Shield Lodge isn’t built to accommodate families, and they’ve run into problems when they get a mom with sons too old stay in the women’s dorm or a dad with daughters.
Plans for an expanded Red Shield Lodge call for family-focused accommodations.
“With the economy the way it is, we’ve had to put it on hold,” Gilbert said.
Statistics for Mississippi children showed improvement in five categories from the beginning of the decade; however, in most categories, the state remained at the bottom of the standings.
“Even though Mississippi’s been in 50th place for the last decade doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been some progress,” Southward said. “Mississippi is generally not improving at the same rate as the rest of the nation and we’re already behind.”
Notably, Mississippi has moved from the bottom to the middle of the pack by significantly reducing the number of teens 16 to 19 who are not in school and don’t have a high school diploma based on 2008 and 2009 data.
“That’s what can happen when there’s a concerted effort,” as there has been with high school dropout prevention campaigns, Southward said. “Things like the tuition guarantee programs in Northeast Mississippi have really given families hope that the future can be brighter for their children.”
michaela.morris@journalinc.com