By Emily Le Coz | NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Three in 10 Northeast Mississippi school children live in poverty, an increase of nearly 6 percentage points since the start of the recession, according to new figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
In the 16-county hills region, 29.5 percent of school-aged children were living in poverty last year, up from 23.8 percent in pre-recession 2007, according to the bureau’s 2010 income and poverty estimates for all counties and school districts.
Aberdeen Public School District experienced the region’s sharpest gain in impoverished school-age children, increasing by 15.7 percentage points during the four-year window. One in every two of its school-aged children live in poverty, the census found. It’s the highest rate among Northeast Mississippi school districts.
Across the region, all but three school districts – Calhoun County, Oktibbeha County and Pontotoc City – saw an increase.
The percentage of children in poverty residing in the Tupelo Public Schools rose to 27.7 percent last year, up 9.5 percentage points from four years prior. Lee County rose to 31.6 percent, up 10.1 points.
Numerous studies show children from low-income families perform worse at school than their higher-income peers because they face issues like hunger and instability. But Lee County Schools Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent-elect Jimmy Weeks said that’s not as big of a problem in his district.
“In the Lee County Schools, if there is a student that’s hungry, they’re going to be fed,” Weeks said. “I think our school district does an excellent job of meeting the needs of students along those lines. It may be a principal or school teacher paying for students’ meals out of their pocket. If they need shoes or if they need a coat, Lee County Schools does an excellent job helping.”
Weeks also credited the efforts of local businesses and charities to provide students with backpacks and school supplies.
The United Way of Northeast Mississippi gave away thousands of backpacks stuffed with supplies at its first Back to School Resource Fair in July. Children also received free health screenings, haircuts and other services.
“When we first started planning it, I thought it’d be just 1,000 children,” said Melinda Tidwell, executive director of the region’s United Way. “But we had over 4,000 that registered.”
Based on the overwhelming need, Tidwell said the agency is organizing its second Back to School Resource Fair next year.
Mississippi as a whole ranked No. 2 nationwide for the number of school-aged children whose families fell below the poverty line. Washington, D.C. had bumped it out of first place with nearly 31 percent of its school children living in poverty versus 30.2 percent in the Magnolia State.
Forty-five percent of school-age children nationwide lived in high-poverty school districts last year. The Census Bureau’s determined this figure using a poverty threshold of $22,314 for a family of four.
That’s a different statistic than used by most school districts, which typically base their poverty numbers on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.