Child Poverty in Knox, Indiana and the Great Recession
In this paper, I examine how changes in the economy since the recession of 2007-2008 have affected child poverty in my hometown of Knox (Starke County), Indiana. In addition to examining the effect of the recession on child and family poverty in Knox, I also examine how public officials are responding and reacting to the changes brought about by the recession, and I compare and contrast, not only the views of those who deal with child poverty on a regular basis, but how those who receive assistance feel about the programs they may or may not benefit from, as well as the understandings they have developed about poverty.
In order to get information regarding changes in child poverty in Knox since the recession, I conducted four interviews in addition to the data I gathered. One of these interviews was conducted with Mr. Glenn Barnes, who is the current principal of Knox Community Elementary School (KCES). Mr. Barnes received his undergraduate and MA from Ball State University and a teaching certificate from Indiana Wesleyan. I chose Mr. Barnes, not only because of his formal training and education in regards to children, but also due to his everyday contact with children from low-income families. In addition to his training and contact, I also chose Mr. Barnes because of his role as an educator, as education is often held up as a means of escaping poverty, an idea that seems to traverse political persuasions in the US.
I compare Mr. Barnes’ views of child poverty, and his understandings of the role of education in relation to poverty, to those of Mrs. Wendel, who teaches kindergarten at KC ES. Mrs. Wendel received her degree in Elementary Education at Ball State University. She has been teaching since 1984, taking a few years off for what she saw as an extended maternity leave. I chose Mrs. Wendel, like Mr. Barnes, because of her frequent contact with low-income children and because of her role as an educator. However, in addition to this, I chose Mrs. Wendel in order to discern whether or not her views as a teacher differed from those of Mr. Barnes. Being on the frontlines, so to speak, Mrs. Wendel’s relationship with her students is much more direct, and she can therefore provide a great deal of insight in regards to the accuracy and/or validity of Mr. Barnes’ understandings of poverty and education.
I also interviewed Lindi (she preferred not to divulge her last name or where she was trained), a case worker from the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA). Again, I chose to interview Lindi because of her frequent contact with low-income children and their families. In the process of gathering information from families to discern whether or not they qualify for benefits, such as Medicaid or food stamps, Lindi gets a first-hand look, in a personal way, at the changes that have taken place since the recession.
I compare Lindi’s experiences and understandings of child poverty and low-income families with those of Kristina, a close friend of mine who has dealt with poverty first-hand and continues to receive assistance. I chose Kristina for two reasons. For one, I wanted to see if Kristina’s experiences confirmed or negated the picture Lindi described to me in regards to child and family poverty in Knox. Secondly, Kristina’s story brings to light an aspect of child poverty that is in many ways unavoidable if one is to provide anything resembling a complete picture of this issue, not only nationally, but also on the state and local levels. Kristina, like many other women in Knox, was a teenage mom.
I chose to examine child poverty for a number of reasons. For one, a disproportionate number of our children live in poverty in the US. While poverty among the elderly dropped from 35% in 1960 to 10% by 1995, child poverty has remained a gnawing problem for our country (Engelhardt, 2004). In 2012, 21.8% of our children lived in poverty, more than double the 9.1% of the elderly who lived in poverty in the same year (Desilver, 2014). This situation represents a reversal. Historically, prior to the enactment of Social Security, the elderly were more than twice as likely as the non-elderly to live in poverty (Engelhardt, 2004).
The issue of child poverty also hits close to home for me, not only because I am a parent, but also because I am an impoverished parent, at least in regards to income. As a parent, the well-being of my child, the problems she may or may not have to deal with as a result of our poverty, is very important to me. I therefore have a vested interest in coming to understand, not just how my community is dealing with this issue, but what understandings are guiding their responses to childhood poverty, and what affects those responses and understandings may or may not have on my child and the children of many other low-income families.
In order to provide both depth and context to the research I have conducted, I will begin by providing a snap-shot of poverty on a national scale. I will then proceed to provide a picture of the changes taking place in relation to Indiana, and then, lastly, in my own community of Knox, Indiana.
Child Poverty in the US
Using the US government’s official measurement of poverty, which is a family of four making less than $23,492 a year, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality asserts that child poverty increased from 18% in 2007 to 21.8% by 2012 (Gursky, 2014). For African-American children, the poverty rate stood at 37.9% and for Hispanics at 33.8% in 2012 (Strauss, 2013). Not only children of color, but younger children, are extremely vulnerable to poverty. Over 25% percent of children under the age of five lived in poverty in 2012, and nearly one out of ten, or 9.7%, lived in extreme poverty, which is defined as a family of four making less than half the official poverty line, or $11,746 a year (Strauss, 2013).
In spite of increases in poverty since the recession, we have not devoted more, but rather less, resources to those institutions commonly looked to as a means of reducing, or at the very least mitigating, poverty. For instance, states have cut funding for social services since the recession, largely due to budget deficits and drops in revenues as a result of the downturn. According to estimates compiled by the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), states cut funding for services by 4.2% for FY2009 and another 6.8% for FY2010 (Johnson, 2011). Thirty-one states implemented cuts that restricted low-income families’ and their children’s eligibility for healthcare and/or restricted their access to certain healthcare services (Johnson, 2010). In addition, the federal government passed legislation this February (2014) that will cut $8.6 billion in food stamp funding over the next decade (Chokshi, 2014).
The majority of states have made deep cuts to education as well. In fact, 34 states provided less funding for the 2013-14 school year than before the recession began in 2007-08, and 13 states have cut spending by more than 10% (Leachman, 2013). Since roughly 44% of all education spending in the US is provided for by state funds, cuts at the state level mean that school districts must cut back on the educational services they offer or raise local tax revenues, and in some cases, both (Leachman, 2013). From 2008 to 2013, school districts cut 324,000 jobs, further restricting incomes and therefore potential tax revenues (Leachman, 2013). At a time when both Democrats and Republicans have held education up as a means for escaping poverty and bridging the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in our country, we are investing less and less in our children’s education and children from low-income families have borne the brunt of this neglect.
Compared to most wealthy nations, the US has done a very poor job of providing for its children. A 2013 report by UNICEF, entitled Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, which measured 29 countries on the basis of five dimensions to determine an overall ranking of child well-being for the countries examined, found the US to be near the bottom (24th of 29 overall), just above Lithuania (Adamson, 2013). In terms of material well-being, the first of the five dimensions examined in the study, the US ranked 26th of 29, barely above Slovakia (Adamson, 2013).
My home state of Indiana mirrors the changes that have taken place nationally since the recession. In fact, Indiana was one of ten states to experience a large increase in its percentage of children in poverty, defined as an increase larger than four to six percent. Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana all experienced greater increases in poverty than the four to six percent benchmark (Isaacs, 2010). Child poverty in Indiana increased from 12.1% in 2000 to 22.1% in 2012, nearly doubling (census.gov., 2012). Poverty among children under five years of age increased from 15.9% in 2000 to 26.4% in 2012 (census.gov., 2012). Children of color, as they are nationally, are also more vulnerable to poverty in Indiana. While 15% of white children lived in poverty in 2011, 44% of African-American children and 36% of Hispanic children lived in poverty in Indiana the same year (nccp.org., 2013).
Indiana has also made cuts to social services and education. In fact, Indiana Republicans made deep cuts to produce the much-celebrated surplus of $1.18 billion at the end of FY2010. These cuts included a $326 million reduction in spending for K-12 education, a $37 million spending cut for higher education, and $321 million worth of cuts to social service programs, and all of this was done while corporations received a tax reduction of 25% (Zorn, 2011). The same year, the New York Times reported that Indiana’s median family income was just 86% of the national average and that Indiana ranked fifth in the nation for personal bankruptcies (Zorn, 2011).
Before providing the data and information I gathered in my interviews, I wish to provide some general information about Starke County. In order to appreciate and understand any research in regards to a particular community, social context should provide an important backdrop.
My hometown, Knox, Indiana, of Starke County, is a small, predominantly white, rural community. Of Starke County’s population of 23,213, 94.7% reported themselves to be white in 2012 (census.gov.,2012-13). The largest minority group is that of the Hispanic or Latino community, which makes up 3.4% of the population in Starke County (census.gov.,2012-13).
Of Indiana’s 92 counties, Starke County ranked 90th in annual per capita personal income in 2012, making it one of the poorest counties in the state (stats.indiana.edu.,2012). Poverty has increased in Starke County from 9.49% in 2000 to 16.5% in 2012 (census.gov.,2012). In fact, 25.9% of children under the age of 18 lived in poverty in Starke County in 2012, and 33% of related children under the age of five (census.gov.,2012). Poverty is certainly one of the more noticeable features of Starke County, on a par with its near complete lack of ethnic-racial diversity.
Starke County, much like the United States as a whole, has a very high teen pregnancy rate. The US has a teen pregnancy rate higher than most developed countries (hhs.gov., 2012). More than one out of ten live births in Indiana were to mothers under the age of 20 in 2007, which placed Indiana 32nd in the nation for teen birth rates (state.in.us., 2011). Starke County was one of the top five counties with the greatest number of births to mothers 18-19 years of age, at 128.2 per 1,000 females in 2005 (in.gov., 2010). Two-thirds of unmarried teen mothers in the US are poor, and roughly a quarter of them are forced onto welfare within the first three years of their child’s birth (ncsl.org., 2014).
My first contact with Mr. Glenn Barnes, principal of KCES, was actually through my then-five-year old daughter, Aurora, who was just beginning kindergarten. Like many children having their first experience spending a good share of their day away from their parents, Rory was having a hard time of it. Mr. Barnes, who likes to get to know his new students, made it a point to be outside as the parents dropped off their children. Seeing how upset my daughter was as I was dropping her off and how hard it was for me to drop her off that upset, he asked Rory if she would feel better if he walked her to class. He would walk her to class everyday for the first week of school, until she became more comfortable. Needless to say, Mr. Barnes’ dedication to educating and getting to know his students, which he continually referred to as “his kids,” is genuine and sincere.
Mr. Barnes received his MA in Liberal Arts from Ball State University, and his teaching certificate from Indiana Wesleyan. He has been a principal for ten years, seven of which were spent at KCES, where he has also been assistant principal.
When I asked Mr. Barnes whether or not there had been any observable changes in child poverty at KCES over the last five years, his answer was an unequivocal yes. However, he also made it clear that child poverty is something that the schools of Knox have been “inundated” with for many years now, using a word that Lindi, the FSSA case worker, would also use in relation to poverty. While Mr. Barnes informed me that there had been an increase in children qualifying for free or reduced lunches, from 60% to 71% of students, the number of students living in low-income families has been so consistently high that the change has not had as dramatic an impact as it most likely would have had on a school unaccustomed to dealing with such a high percentage of low-income students.
In spite of the fact that many schools across the nation have had to lay-off teachers and make cuts to shore up budget shortfalls, Mr. Barnes informed me that KCES has not had to make direct cuts or immediately lay anyone off, as the school board has been very frugal. However, a number of positions were simply left vacant after employees made the decision to retire. As a result of retirements, the staff at KCES has become younger than what it was when Mr. Barnes took over as principal. Mr. Barnes sees this as positive, as it provides fresher perspectives on how best to serve the students at KCES.
Mr. Barnes sees education as being the key to combating poverty, not only in Starke County, but nationally. His optimism regarding the usefulness of education for breaking what he referred to as the “cycle of poverty” is nearly limitless. The key, to Mr. Barnes, is finding a way to motivate low-income students to take an active interest in their education, and Mr. Barnes mentioned that KCES has done a good job of implementing Ruby Payne’s recommendations in this regard.
Ruby Payne, Ph.D., is a career educator and founder of aha! Process. Her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and her workshops have become immensely popular with school boards across the nation. Payne employs what is commonly referred to as a “deficit perspective” for working with children in poverty. According to Payne, children in poverty operate according to a set of “hidden rules,” which she defines as the “unspoken cues and habits of a group,” that teachers must learn to understand in order to successfully educate children in poverty. For instance, Payne asserts that people in poverty view money as something to be spent, whereas the middle class see money as something to be managed (Bomer, 2008). Both Payne and Mr. Barnes see the key to educating low-income children as identifying the specific deficits, such as the one stated above, that children have acquired as a result of living in poverty and having learned the “hidden rules,” and then working to correct these deficits, thus allowing children to break the “cycle of poverty” through education and the attainment of a career.
Mrs. Wendel, whom I also met through my daughter (she’s her teacher), teaches kindergarten at KCES. Mrs. Wendel received her degree in Elementary Education from Ball State University. She has been teaching since 1984, though she stated that she took a few years off for maternal reasons.
Mrs. Wendel, like Mr. Barnes, made note of the fact that child poverty has increased since the recession. She also noted that this has not had as noticeable an impact due to the consistently high number of low-income children attending school in Knox. However, she also stated that she felt that at the elementary level, at least up to fourth or fifth grade, most of the students in her classes have not taken much notice of differences associated with social class. In fact, she stated that she often cannot tell which children come from low-income families and which do not. However, she stated that she can often tell which children are coming from really rough situations. She stated that these children often come to school dirty, tired, and hungry. They tend to fight hard for attention, and if some sort of treat or prize is involved they make sure they are first in line, as if they fear they will not get their share, or any at all.
Mrs. Wendel does not share Mr. Barnes’ optimism in regards to education’s usefulness as a means for combating poverty. For one, she felt that, particularly since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the added stress of the recession in 2007-08, we are asking teachers to do more with much less. While she stated that she has no problem with attempting to find some basis with which to compare school performance, you can not restrict a school’s budget and resources, which in her view were already quite meager, and then penalize a school, its faculty and its teachers for not meeting standards set with absolutely no regard for what, or with what, schools are working. Cutting millions of dollars worth of funding for education and then asking teachers to meet higher standards simply will not work in her view, no matter how well-formulated the curriculum or the strategy for implementing it.
Secondly, Mrs. Wendel believes that asking education to solve social problems like poverty is simply asking education to do something that it is not designed to do. She made clear that she values education very much and that she certainly has done her best to instill in her students, as well as in her own children, a desire to learn. She certainly feels that education is worth a great deal more than the price tag our leaders have placed on it. However, she also feels that education is designed to elicit learning, knowledge, and perhaps even wisdom, but it is not designed to combat poverty in any general way. In her view, poverty itself provides much too big an obstacle for many low-income children to hurdle. She stated that it is much harder for a child to learn when they are not sure if they will eat dinner when they get home, or if Mom or Dad will be there.
When I asked Mrs. Wendel what she felt should be done, she said that she thought that we needed to address poverty and income inequality in a much more direct fashion. She did not have a straightforward plan, although she agreed that the creation of jobs that pay roughly double the poverty line, rather privately created or through government, would certainly provide a much more effective solution than attempting to educate poverty away. She added, however, that she believed that this would most likely have to be coupled with some sort of financial counseling, noting that her son is just now learning how important having some sort of budget can be.
When I asked Mrs. Wendel about Ruby Payne’s Framework, she noted that she had read the book but had not truthfully attempted to implement any of her recommendations in the classroom. While she noted that she could not speak for any of the other kindergarten teachers, she did not feel that its prescriptions really applied well to the age group she was dealing with. She did not find Payne’s work particularly useful for dealing with younger children living in poverty.
When you walk into the Family and Social Services Administration building in Knox, one’s first impression is that no one works there but the receptionist. The receptionist’s desk is the only clearly visible desk in the whole building; first thoughts are that this is a place to drop off papers or perhaps get information about how to contact someone, but this is not the place to get a face-to-face meeting. To my surprise, however, there are case workers intermittently present in the office, although you would have much more luck over the phone or by making an appointment if you truly wish to speak with someone about benefits.
Although my interview with Lindi, the FSSA case worker, was on the spot, leaving her little time to prepare any in-depth data on the changes that have taken place since the recession, she did provide me with a general outline of the changes she has seen over the last five years.
Lindi has been a case worker for the FSSA for six years. She informed me that over the last three years she has seen a dramatic increase in families applying for benefits, particularly healthcare. She believes that the increase in healthcare requests have been due to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. When families or individuals sign up for benefits under the Affordable Care Act, Lindi stated, if their income is below a certain amount they are referred to the FSSA. If they do not qualify for Medicaid, then they are referred back to the federal market place. Lindi also mentioned that many of the families and individuals she spoke to claimed they could not afford the premiums offered under the Affordable Care Act, and this was particularly true of her elderly clients.
Lindi stated that she has seen more clients over the last three years who were applying for benefits for the first time. Many of these clients had held the same job for many years. She described them as hard-working and dedicated. She also noted how scared many of them were. She told me of her clients’ fears that they would not find work that provided comparable pay to their previous jobs, and the fear that they did not have the requisite skills to acquire work that paid a comparable wage.
Lindi also stated that many families were “moving back in together.” She noted that while it was quite typical for her Latino clients to have numerous families and/or individuals living at the same residence, she was now seeing more and more white families forced to share housing. Sometimes she said this was due to the sickness of a parent or close family member, but she also made note that the phenomenon was not confined to such cases.
Lindi has also seen an increase in families with young children, whom she defined as children under seven years of age, applying for benefits, and due to the fact that the FSSA has worked in coordination with child services over the years, she noted an increase in reports of child abuse, typically when the school year begins because of increased visibility.
One of the big struggles that Lindi has been dealing with over the last few years is the inability to find her clients work. She noted that it has taken much longer over the last few years to find work for those actively seeking it compared to before the recession. Another obstacle has been the unavailability of reliable transportation for those who have found work, as Starke County currently provides no funds for transportation for the non-elderly, and seeing as how Starke County is some distance from those areas likely to provide work, lack of transportation can be a big hurdle to gainful employment.
The availability of daycare has been yet another obstacle to employment for young, single moms. While Starke County has a voucher program, there have also been cuts made to the program, and as Lindi also noted, many of the daycares that take the vouchers are located miles from Starke County, which creates yet another obstacle for mothers seeking employment.
When I asked Lindi what she thought should be done to fix, or at the very least, mitigate these problems, she stated that she did not have a fixed plan for solving the problems associated with the poverty she sees every day at work. However, she said she would like to see more jobs created that pay above the poverty line, greater availability of healthcare, daycare, and transportation.
Kristina, a friend of mine who also grew up in Knox, is the single mother of two beautiful young children, Landen and Hailey. Kristina was 14 years old when she met CJ, the father of both her children. Their relationship had always been rocky, largely due to CJ’s constant partying and cheating. Despite these problems, Kristina stated that she continued to cling to the naïve notion that he may one day grow into the man she needed him to be.
Kristina became pregnant with Landen when she was 16 years old. When I asked her if she remembered having a discussion about sex, either at school or with her parents, she stated that she did not remember there being any discussion of sex at school. However, she did note that her parents had “the talk” with her, but the discussion centered around one, totalizing concept: do not have sex until you are married.
Not long after Kristina became pregnant, she decided that she could not handle CJ’s constant partying and cheating. The two went their separate ways. After the break-up, CJ’s visits with Landen were rare and sporadic. In spite of this, Kristina noted that she still held out the hope that CJ would grow up and become a real father to Landen. The two of them reunited briefly, which resulted in her second pregnancy with Hailey, when she was 17. Kristina’s hopes for CJ were quickly dashed when he refused to even acknowledge that Hailey was his daughter. CJ now has eight children by different women throughout the community. He has contact with only one of them, which may or may not continue.
Kristina receives $280/month in food stamps and both her children receive Medicaid. She also gets intermittent child support checks from CJ, but she noted that this has not been a dependable source of income for her and the children. In fact, Kristina noted that her family has been the greatest source of support and strength for her. Kristina is both a CNA and an Assistant Activities Director at a nursing home not far from Knox. She noted that she would not be able to hold down either of these jobs, let alone meet her other obligations to her children, without the help of her parents. Her parents have played the role of parent, grandparent, and daycare, and for this she is extremely grateful.
Kristina sees herself as incredibly lucky. Had she not had the support, love, and guidance of her family and a few close friends, she does not know how she, or her children, would have survived. She made it very clear that single moms, many of which will live in poverty, need a great deal of support, if not from their families, than from the community. While she noted that her life has been much too busy to come to any understanding of how the community is handling child poverty and teen pregnancy, she noted that absent a great deal of support from the family or some other source, it is the children who will endure the bulk of the suffering.
While I find Mr. Barnes’ dedication to his students, and his sincere desire to create a positive educational experience for them admirable, I agree with Mrs. Wendel that his plan to combat poverty through education is unlikely to work. I also agree with Mrs. Wendel that in order to have any sort of impact on child and family poverty, one must directly take aim at the social world that creates it. I find her assertion that education is not meant to address poverty in any general way to hold a great deal of truth, even if Mr. Barnes were working from a well-formulated understanding of child poverty, which is not the case.
Ruby Payne’s work is based on the premise that the poor are poor due to their own deficient characteristics and it is the job of the educator to identify these deficiencies and to work to correct them, and therefore motivate the student to take an active role in his/her education. Such a framework ignores the social system that creates and perpetuates poverty altogether, situating the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of the poor. It then works with low-income children on the basis of stereotypes recast as “hidden rules” that one must come to understand in order to get through to low-income children (Gorsky, 2006). As Bomer et al. summed it up:
Payne repeatedly selects elements of daily life that represent the lives of the poor as characterized by violence, depravity, and criminality. Payne’s selective representations are negative stereotypes that essentialize poor people as immoral, violent, and socially deficient. These representations do not account for the majority of low-income people, who work hard, obey the law, and do not exhibit the behaviors and attitudes that Payne has described (2008, Immediate Environment of Poor Children section, para.4).
I agree with Mrs. Wendel that ignoring the social conditions children from low-income families must deal with, and attempting to deal with them on an individual basis, is unlikely to work to alleviate poverty, even if one were working from a flawless perspective on poverty. While Mr. Barnes’ approach may very well reflect the lack of existing resources in Knox, such an approach is unlikely to have any major impact on child poverty. In fact, given the research conducted on the effect of teacher’s expectations on children’s performance, such as that done by Robert Rosenthal of Harvard University in 1964, if teachers approach their students expecting to find them in some way deficient, Payne’s approach could very likely have a negative impact on students in poor areas like Knox (Spiegel, 2012).
Although Lindi refrained from stating a straightforward plan to reduce or mitigate child poverty, I agree with her that creating jobs and making healthcare, daycare, and transportation both affordable and available would be a step in the right direction. However, I would contend that rather than creating jobs that merely pay above the poverty line, which is set quite low in the US, what is needed is the creation of jobs that pay a living wage, which the Economic Policy Institute found to be at least double the poverty line (Berman, 2013).
I agree with Kristina that teen pregnancy and motherhood present the community with a very unique situation that must be dealt with. It is not simply a problem of too little funding for programs designed to prevent and deal with teen pregnancy and income inequality, although this is certainly a big part of the picture. For one, there must be some sort of concerted program to provide education, not just about sex and abstinence, but about protection and prevention. In addition, teen mothers require a good deal of emotional and social support, which they may or may not receive from their families. Lindi’s assertion that making daycare, healthcare, and decent paying jobs available would go a long way to mitigate the problems associated with poverty. However, I agree with Kristina that teen mothers will often need even more support from their communities, particularly in those cases in which the family is not involved.
The research I have conducted, on both the national, state, and local levels, paints a rather grim picture, and I admit I find this picture to be rather disheartening. However, ugly as the picture may be, the response our national, state, and local leaders have given to the poverty I have described in this paper is even more alarming. At a time when both the scope and severity of child poverty is increasing, national, state, and local governments have both weakened their ability to respond and shirked their responsibility to respond. We have let our children down.
As a parent, I hope to see my daughter live in a much better world than the one I have described thus far. However, as I finish this paper I am left with rather mixed feelings. While many of our leaders have taken a rather cynical, calloused approach to child and family poverty, there are others, like Mrs. Wendel and Lindi, who seem to have a much more clear understanding of the problems we are facing and the actions that need to be taken in order to address them. For this reason, I end this paper with feelings of both frustration and optimism. I am hopeful that ordinary men and women- like Mrs. Wendel, Mr. Barnes, Lindi, and Kristina- who work with, and have had experiences with, poverty, can change the way we deal with this issue. For the sake of my daughter and millions of other children living in poverty, I hope my faith in them is not misplaced.
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