Step 1: Understand the Issue
The conversation about poverty is at times loud and confrontational. It’s piercing and divisive. But the cold hard truth is that mostly it’s heartbreakingly quiet.
It’s easy to get bogged down sorting through infinitesimal details about which poverty number is better and what agency is more reliable. Kansas lawmakers hear from one group, and within weeks another group disputes the facts. Confusion shrouds the problem. It obstructs good ideas from some of the brightest thinkers. It leaves the average citizen wondering whom to trust. The problem is so overwhelming and complex that it can seem easier to dispute or ignore the statistics than to find a place to help.
Then take into account that many middle-class families are still struggling to recover from the economic recession themselves. Making time to solve weighty societal problems – even a moral and ethical dilemma like childhood poverty – isn’t a priority.
Meanwhile, childhood poverty grows at an alarming rate. About 1 in 5 Kansas children lives in poverty according to Census figures. Another calculation pegs it at nearly 1 in 4. It’s a national problem. The percentage of children living in poverty in the U.S. has gone up as well.
Too many Kansans are not getting the help they need to move their families out of poverty and into the middle class. Poverty impacts every Kansan regardless of their financial wherewithal. It comes at a great financial toll, be it through higher crime rates, special education K-12 spending or low graduation rates and an unprepared workforce.
Every dollar invested in helping at-risk children pays incredible long-term rewards. But boosting prevention programs for the state’s poorest citizens is hardly appealing at a time when state revenues have fallen.
A 10-year trend shows that several poverty indicators have increased steadily, including government anti-poverty programs that provide school lunches, health care for low-income children and assistance buying food. At the same time, fewer families have qualified for government welfare programs that provide cash assistance to low-income people. The oddity has happened since 2011 when eligibility standards for cash assistance were changed. The eligibility standards show a clear line where philosophical differences on childhood poverty become profound.
As much as Americans – Kansans included – criticize social welfare programs, there is a simple truth: Government programs help provide relief.The implementation is where philosophical ideals collide. There are differing perspectives on what actually lifts people out of poverty. Advocates say government aid offers a life preserver that keeps people afloat until they find their own footing.
Critics worry it discourages parents from getting jobs. A good example of those differences is unfolding this very moment within state government.
The administration of Gov. Sam Brownback has not backed away from new limits on cash assistance, which is the kind of government aid typically seen as welfare. In Kansas, a family of four can receive a range of $450 to $500 a month. It’s not good for alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets. And the clock begins ticking the day the first check is cut. In Kansas, recipients are limited to 48 months of aid through-out their lifetime. It used to be 60 months.
Brownback has said the stricter standards were imposed for a clear reason: to encourage adults to get back to work faster and achieve long-term self-sufficiency. The country has spent billions on short-term solutions that haven’t worked, he has argued. Isn’t it time to try something else?
The state is open to new ideas, says Phyllis Gilmore, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. For starters, she wants to make mental health a priority.
The number of people receiving temporary assistance has been falling in recent years, and the program has accumulated a larger reserve fund. Gilmore’s agency wants to channel welfare dollars into “worthwhile programs that help prevent poverty,” which she says are exactly the places they’re supposed to go.
The philosophy doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some advocates also want the state to begin spending at least some of its $47 million cash assistance reserve fund on Kansans – now. Money might not be the only answer, but it does help pay the rent and provide gas for job interviews, critics have said. It’s a classic example of the clash of perspectives over childhood poverty between meeting immediate needs and promoting self-sufficiency.
Several advocates across the state believe it’s unthinkable to have allowed the federal cash assistance reserve to grow so large while so many families were in need. It’s also not clear to them that those losing assistance are able to get jobs to replace that income. The debate grew hotter when the Brownback administration proposed shifting millions from the cash assistance reserve fund for low-income families to fourth-grade reading programs.
The debate over encouraging self-sufficiency versus meeting needs remains alive in many other aspects of the issue, too, whether it’s expanding health-care coverage for low-income Kansans or reducing food-stamp benefits at the federal level. But some advocates, such as Shannon Cotsoradis of Kansas Action for Children, wonder if Kansans could frame the discussion in a way that focuses on what would help children the most.
“I think we need to spend less time talking about the adults who are relying on safety-net programs today and probably will be for many years to come, and we need to spend more time on how we make sure that today’s poor children don’t become tomorrow’s poor adults. Our focus is entirely in the wrong place,” says Cotsoradis, the organization’s chief executive and a partner with the Kansas Leadership Center who is attempting to change the conversation on childhood poverty in Kansas.
What’s at Stake
Even when we fight over our perspectives, it’s clear that there’s substantial human capital lost when children don’t find pathways out of poverty. But quantifying that work is difficult.
“The data in and of itself doesn’t get to the reason of why people are poor, so it does leave it to someone’s philosophical beliefs to fill in the blanks,” says Karen Wulfkuhle, executive director of United Community Services of Johnson County.
Value judgments take over: The poor make bad decisions. They waste money on iPhones. They don’t work. Regardless, economists agree that attending to the issue of poverty is imperative. It saves money in the long run.
By now many of us know about the figures: Every dollar invested can pay significant dividends down the road. Some estimate annual re-turns of quality early-childhood education at 10 percent.
It’s especially true for at-risk children, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman. He estimates a nearly 7 percent to 10 percent annual rate of return on the investment when one calculates lower crime rates, better overall health, lower social welfare costs and more. “There are very, very few government programs that have any rates of return close to this,” says Heckman, from the University of Chicago, on his website. Cotsoradis adds another complexity to the situation in Kansas.
“In Kansas we grow our own. People don’t flock here. So if we’re losing nearly one in four kids because they’re growing up in poverty without access to good educational opportunities, health care, all the things they need to grow up to be healthy contributing adults, that really has huge implications for our future workforce and our future economic prosperity,” she says. “So it makes a lot of sense to talk about why we want to invest in these kids.”
But there’s something else: the link between childhood poverty and brain development. Scientists, pediatricians, sociologists and others are sounding the alarm about the toll of long-term stress on a child’s non-cognitive brain development. Research indicates that skills such as self-control, resilience and reasoning are affected by long-term stress.
Children living in poverty might not know where their family is moving next or when the next meal is coming. They are sometimes exposed to violence, drug use and a series of poor decisions. The trauma takes a toll.
It’s something that some prison officials in Kansas have discussed for years. But it’s getting more mainstream attention in recent years.
Elementary and middle school teachers are paying especially close attention to children’s home lives. Soft skills are so important that early-childhood programs such as the Shawnee Mission Parents as Teachers program encourages parents to start teaching children younger than 3 to learn coping strategies. It’s a small start, but also another reminder how much the deck ends up being stacked against children who happen to born into poverty.
When you’re a poor kid, even where you live can work against you. Just living in a community where people are more segregated by their incomes reduces your chances for social mobility.
There is no sure-fire fix to end childhood poverty. There’s no simplistic checklist for scholars, social service groups, government agencies and the public to follow. And there’s no crystal ball to give the conclusion either.
Here’s what we do know.
Studies say social mobility – the ability to rise above the economic class you were born into – hasn’t changed that much over time. But the middle class is being squeezed smaller. Families are falling into low-income and poverty categories at noteworthy rates. It’s all happening as the U.S. economy continues to undergo changes with the decline in manufacturing and agriculture jobs.
As the world has become more competitive, higher levels of education and creative skills have become more prized. Our economy has become more about consumption and providing services instead of making things. Many of the paths that provided stable, decent-paying jobs with benefits to people with high school educations or lower have disappeared.
The proliferation of low-wage jobs in Kansas and throughout the country means that more Kansans work full time and still cannot move their families above the poverty line. Not only do the jobs pay little, but such key ingredients as health insurance, sick time and stability are missing. In Kansas, about 23 percent of all jobs are classified as low wage, according to the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard published by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, a national nonprofit that advocates on behalf of low-income families and communities.
At the same time, family structures have been upended with divorce and single-parenthood becoming increasingly common. Two-income families have become the norm, and are increasingly important to keeping the middle class afloat.
The moral dilemma of childhood poverty becomes especially compounded because poverty looks different than it did several decades ago. Material belongings once easily identified the haves versus the have nots. That’s changed. Falling prices – the Walmart effect – on consumer goods have made it more likely that a family living in poverty can afford basic consumer products like clothes, toys and even an iPhone. But dramatic price increases on things such as child care and a college education make it increasingly more difficult for families to break the cycle.
Individual decisions do matter, but there are broader social and economic forces beyond an individual’s control that make the odds of rising out of poverty so long.
One-on-one counseling – conducted by state and nonprofit groups – helps. Money is an important part of the equation but even that is not a magic elixir. Poverty would exist if every public and private dollar was diverted to the issue.
But there is one thing everyone involved can agree upon: Jobs are an essential way out of poverty. “One of the number one things that I think we know is that full-time employment is the number one way out of poverty,” Gilmore says.
Wulfkuhle agrees. She wonders how to bring more businesses into the conversation about childhood poverty. It would mean creating more family-friendly policies allowing employees to stay home with sick children. It would mean a frank discussion about increasing wages through government requirements or employer decisions.
As it stands, she believes that narrow groups of people – state and county governments, schools, some faith communities and nonprofit agencies – are working to solve the massive childhood poverty problem without some essential thinkers at the table.
“I don’t think (the conversation) is happening in the business community – in that place where the real solution lies in terms of wages,” Wulfkuhle says. There is something – beside jobs – that many agree must be part of the solution. More people need to get involved. Government isn’t the only answer.
“It’s all of us doing what we can together. Government cannot do everything and cannot do it alone,” Gilmore says.
The secretary wants to see stakeholders from communities across Kansas come up with creative ways to address the root problems within their region. Some of this already takes place, but Gilmore would like to see more. Jobs must be part of the equation everywhere. Others agree. Kansans must step up and do more.
But where do they start?
The Kansas Association of Communication Action Programs has some ideas.
Community Action outreach director Jesyca Hope Rodenberg says small steps, even tipping better at restaurants, helps. But she suggests Kansans start talking about the problem. Don’t wait for government policy to make changes. Create the change by voting, calling lawmakers, talking to your co-workers and asking your boss about paid sick leave and minimum wage, she says. Engage in meaningful conversation on social media.
But meaningful conversation demands respect, she says. Don’t unfriend someone on Facebook because you don’t agree with them.
“It is OK that we disagree with each other. It’s not OK that we don’t listen to each other,” she says. She urges the public to be respectful of the poor as well.
She urges Kansans to stop worrying about how poor families spend their food stamp money – laws do a good job of regulating that already – and start thinking about how it feels to lose the freedom to plan a menu for their own family.
“I would be aghast if strangers were allowed to judge me based on what I have in my grocery basket,” she says. “I just want people to think about it.”
Another key step, Rodenberg says, is for people to start listening and understanding what would truly help those in need in their communities.
There are other, more immersive ways to better understand the challenges of poverty. Kansans can invite the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs to come to their organization, workplace or nonprofit and conduct a program called Poverty Simulation. It is designed to help people understand the frustration and confusion that Kansans experience while struggling to maintain employment without money to pay for food, school supplies, child care, mortgage, insurance and gas. Before participants leave, they’re asked to write down what they’ll do to help.
At a recent Poverty Simulation session held in Johnson County, several participants were already volunteering for programs aimed at children. But many wanted to do more. A Shawnee Mission teacher organizes a group focused on childhood poverty at her Wellsville church. She acknowledges that it took her awhile to get past her perception of welfare abuse with some. But eventually she decided that childhood poverty was too widespread to ignore.
“I can focus on the abuse and to me all that does is relieve my conscience,” she says. “It assuages my guilt.”
Instead she’s decided to focus on something more basic when it comes to thinking about childhood poverty.
“It’s not us-versus-them,” she says. “It’s all of us.”
ABOUT THIS STORY:
Journal writer Dawn Bormann Novascone interviewed more than two dozen Kansans and national experts and advocates for this story. She also reviewed a variety of legislative testimony, employment data, poverty data, economic studies and opinion pieces. Her research also included participating in the Poverty Simulation within her community and reviewing reports focused on the long-term effects of childhood poverty.
Bormann Novascone also drew on her own experience and training as a volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate working within the family court system, and 15 years as a newspaper reporter covering some of the state’s wealthiest and poorest communities, youth issues, crime and politics.