Akron Community Foundation report, panel presentation outline possible remedies for early childhood poverty
In many ways, childhood poverty is hidden in plain sight, as you’re not likely to see a homeless child roaming the streets. However, this prominent social issue continues to worsen, as many families have shelter and basic needs but are still within the cold grasp of poverty, living day to day. Others are only days or weeks from being homeless at any given moment.
In Summit County, there are more than 8,000 children under age 5 living in poverty, which is much higher than the national average. Early childhood poverty is one of a handful of critical issues outlined in the Akron Community Foundation report called “Creating Measurable Community Impact.”
According to the report: “Twenty-nine percent of children in Summit County under age 5 live in poverty. Children raised in poverty often experience fewer rich learning environments, less parental nurturing, and high levels of toxic stress that can adversely affect their development. Minority children and those in female-headed households are disproportionately impacted by poverty, leading to continued disparities in health, social and economic outcomes.”
The critical years of early childhood often dictate the rest of this child’s life, and generational poverty hinders his or her chances of stable employment and support networks often found in the middle class and higher — setting the stage for this life of poverty to be passed along to future generations.
“Almost two-thirds of families in poverty in Summit County have at least one worker but do not make enough money to rise above the poverty threshold,” according to the Foundation report. When the local number of young children in poverty (29 percent) is compared to the national average (22 percent), the seriousness of this local issue becomes apparent. (Click HERE to read and download the report.)
“As a nation, we need to make a more concerted effort to care for that vulnerable population of children that are in poverty,” says Joel Davidson, who, as a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital, works with a high number of low-income families every day.
Davidson was one of a number of speakers at a recent presentation called “Strong Start in Early Childhood,” the third of a “War on Poverty” series co-hosted by Akron Community Foundation, United Way of Summit County and Leadership Akron. The panel was based on the Foundation’s report. (Click here to see the full presentation. An edited version is available at the end of the article.)
Generational poverty begins and ends with children, says Donae Ceja, former senior vice president of community impact for United Way of Summit County, who also spoke at the recent War on Poverty discussion.
More than 16 million children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. The Center states that, “Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.”
However, public policies around work supports — like earned income tax credits, child care subsidies, health insurance, food stamps and housing assistance — may be crucial to helping to close the income gap that’s eating away at our society’s dwindling middle class, the Center adds.
Even those low-income families meeting basic needs may not place as high a value on education, and are in need of support services. When parents work multiple jobs and don’t have the time to help children with homework or encourage outside school activities that could help with a child’s development, the results also may contribute to generational poverty.
Resources and solutions abound in Summit County
There are a number of valuable resources in Summit County, from shelters for mothers and children to services for entire families who are homeless. ACCESS serves women and children who are escaping abusive relationships, and those struggling with addiction and job loss, among a myriad of other issues. Family Promise is a collaborative of local churches that will take in entire families (and even pets) facing homelessness, keeping families together during this most vulnerable period.
Another crucial support organization is Project RISE, an Akron Public Schools program that helps children from homeless families stay in their neighborhood schools, providing consistent help with transportation and tutoring. Led by Debra Manteghi, Project RISE helps provide these children from homeless families some consistency, while many of them are going to and from local shelters to their classes.
Over the years, the Akron Public Schools has become a service provider for low-income families, points out Carla Sibley, director of community relations for the schools. And reaching out to parents and families is critical. “If we can collaborate with others in the community who have a better relationship with the parents than we do, we’re going to be much more successful,” says Sibley.
Around 25 percent of families in the area are sleeping on the floor with their infants, says Christine Yuhasz, director of strategic engagement for the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA), who also spoke at the recent War on Poverty panel. “That’s really alarming,” she says.
AMHA is another of the many valuable support services in Summit County. The Foundation report outlines AMHA’s Bright Light early childhood initiative, which offers early care and education for 3,000 local children under age 5, from families that live in the agency’s public and Section 8 housing.
The housing agency also offers education for parents of low-income families, many of whom had poor parenting skills passed along to them from prior generations. The agency can work with parents to help make them the child’s “first and most important teachers,” she says.
Unfortunately, some people in poverty are often mistrusting of the resources out there, adds Yuhasz. Residents in poverty can’t be faulted for their mistrust, as the system could appear adversarial to those in this situation.
Some of the strongest services are those that focus on collaboration among many local agencies. One such collaborative is the First Things First initiative, a coalition of a number of Summit County agencies that have identified early childhood development as a priority.
Summit Education Initiative (SEI), another countywide collaborative, studies trends and success “from cradle to career,” or birth to job placement. “Our goal here should be that all children graduate prepared, passionate and persistent in their chosen career pathway,” says Matt Deevers, senior research associate for SEI, who also spoke at the recent War on Poverty panel discussion. And focusing on that career and long-term goals can help break this cycle of poverty.
The Akron Community Foundation report suggests a number of possible next steps to help reduce early childhood poverty, from assistance in family planning to access to quality preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds, regardless of family income, and parental outreach and training to help households in Summit County become more nurturing of this critical development stage.
Another program, called Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids (SPARK) is a kindergarten readiness program that helps with the aforementioned parental outreach.
There are admittedly too many local support services to name in one article, but some other resources include educational services for young children, the Akron-Summit County Public Library and Head Start.
There also are programs for adults that help to break this generational cycle of poverty, like job readiness and parenting, GED classes, Bridges Out of Poverty’s Getting Ahead trainings, computer classes, vocational certificates and parenting workshops.
The “Creating Measurable Community Impact” report was the result of a study Akron Community Foundation commissioned from The Center for Community Solutions, a Northeast Ohio nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank specializing in applied research, public policy and advocacy. Other areas of focus for the Foundation’s report include food insecurity, our aging senior population, employment and transportation.
For info, visit www.akroncf.org.