When Carol Paine-McGovern sees child poverty continuing to rise in Kent County, she takes some comfort in the work local schools and their communities are doing to relieve its burden on students. She’s intimately involved in that work as executive director of the Kent School Services Network, a social-services support system serving 39 schools in eight school districts.
Yet when she saw the latest local and statewide numbers on poverty and child well-being released today, Paine-McGovern again was reminded how very far we still have to go.
“It tells a profound story of a shift that has happened,” Paine-McGovern said of 2017 Kids Count in Michigan, an annual report on child and family health, education and economic security. “When you observe it in your own community, it really hits hard.”
She spoke of the continuing rise of children ages 0-17 living in poverty and its attendant challenges. The grim trends were to be discussed this morning in a press conference in Grand Rapids.
More than one in five Michigan children, just over 22 percent, lived in poverty in 2015 — a 15 percent rate increase since 2008, according to the report by the Michigan League for Public Policy. The rates were substantially worse for African-American children (47 percent) and Latinos (30 percent) than for whites (15 percent).
Although Kent County was slightly below the statewide figures, its 19.1 percent child poverty rate was up by nearly 5 percent from 2008, when the rate was 18.2 percent. Further, the 47 percent of Kent students receiving free or reduced lunches was a 21 percent rate jump since 2008, and exceeded the statewide rate of 46 percent.
Such sobering statistics represent nearly 30,000 students walking into Kent County classrooms, trying to learn the things that could help lift them out of poverty.
“When you go in schools and see the bright shiny faces and realize everything else that is going on in their lives, we have to figure out how to make things better for a large number of children,” Paine-McGovern said.
|Trends in Child Well-Being
Kent County, 2008-2015
Numbers represent percent of population; rate change over time; and rank among 82 counties, with No. 1 being the best
Family and community
Mirroring Statewide Trends
The magnitude of the challenges is heightened by disparity. In an overall ranking of child well-being in 82 of Michigan’s 83 counties, the report places Kent County 27th. Neighboring Ottawa County is first, with 9 percent of its children living in poverty — less than half Kent’s rate.
Yet the report also shows Kent County’s children are far from alone in their struggles: 72 state counties saw child poverty increase, 79 an increase in free and reduced lunch, and 58 an increase in confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect. Kent saw a sharp increase inthe latter, along with more low-birthweight babies and inadequate prenatal care.
Other local trends were more encouraging, including a drop in teen births and the percentage of students not graduating on time.
But poverty continues to permeate thousands of children’s lives, and challenges schools’ efforts to “level the playing field” for them, Paine-McGovern said. She noted that in more than half of Kent County’s 230 school buildings, the free and reduced-lunch rate exceeds the state average.
“A lot of schools out there are trying to educate children, when poverty is a consistent theme in their lives,” she said. “How do we as a community pull together to figure out how we can help children learn and be successful and work out of poverty? On the flipside, what are we doing for those families consistently, generation after generation, living in poverty? Those are the hard questions.”
Help for Struggling Families
Kent School Services Network works to answer some of those questions, not just in the urban districts but suburban and rural communities. Here, as statewide, poverty knows no boundaries.
At Kenowa Hills’ Alpine Elementary School, set amid the rolling fruit orchards of Northwest Kent County, KSSN came on board in 2014-15. Since then students and families have gotten help with everything from food, clothing and eyeglasses to housing and state assistance programs.
A school-community coordinator, mental-health clinician and Department of Health and Human Services worker help meet the needs of Alpine’s 375 students. About 75 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch, and in the fall many Latino children come from migrant families who work in the orchards.
Principal Jason Snyder said KSSN has helped students with chronic attendance problems get to school, increased communication with parents, and made school a better experience for students from struggling families.
“That they don’t have to worry about what to eat for dinner or where to stay for the night is definitely to going to help in the classroom,” Snyder said.
From the farm fields of Kenowa, Sparta and Cedar Springs to the city streets of Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming, poverty remains a perennial challenge to schools, Paine-McGovern said.
“When Kids Count comes out every year it’s always a rude awakening — that we don’t rest, there’s more work to be done.”