Hidden hardship

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY JULIE ANDERSON
Children living in poverty in Marion County? The notion may surprise most residents, but lack of awareness doesn?t mean the problem doesn?t exist here.

?There is poverty in Marion County and any school principal can tell you that,? said Linda Ogden, coordinator of Communities that Care, which manages the state incentive cooperative agreement grant in Marion County. ?Any school principal can tell you about kids that come to school without proper clothing.?

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 13 percent of the children in Marion County were living in poverty in 1993.

As of November 1999, 63 percent of youth in Marion County are receiving temporary assistance through their families, according to Becky Hadicke, public relations employee for Social and Rehabilitative Services.

?I think a lot of people are not aware of the problem and when they are told, they are shocked and think it is exaggerated and don?t believe it,? Ogden said.

One reason people are not aware of poverty is because it occurs in pockets across Marion County, and varies by school district, Ogden said.

Another misleading factor is the county?s low unemployment rate.

Gordon Mohn, USD 410 superintendent, feels the proportion of kids in poverty is increasing. He said the number of middle- and high-paying jobs have stayed the same in the county, but minimum wage jobs continue to increase.

Added Ogden: ?Through absolutely no fault of their own, there are kids in poverty.?

?Poverty? can mean anything from not having new clothes and school supplies to sleeping on the floor and not having clean clothes or enough to eat.

Often, situations such as not having clean clothes is not because the child lacks clothes. Ogden said it could be due to not having laundry detergent or that the water pipes freeze in the winter.

Mike Moran, Hillsboro Elementary School counselor, said clothing is not as big of a problem in Hillsboro as it has been in the past.

But one problem that has arisen in Marion County is shoes. Ogden said many children come to school in used shoes that don?t fit right.

She said people often don?t have the money to buy one pair of shoes for class and another for physical education.

The two primary problems facing families living in poverty in Marion County are housing and transportation.

?There is substandard housing in Marion County that families are living in poverty,? Ogden said. ?It happens all of the time.?

Substandard housing can lead to a number of problems.

Such houses often are hard to keep warm in winter, do not have air conditioning for the summer, have insect problems in the infrastructure and have dilapidated roofs, leaky ceilings and problems with pipes freezing.

?We have to ask what?s acceptable for housing,? said Gordon Mohn, USD 410 superintendent. ?We have kids living in housing that ought to be torn down.?

In addition, Ogden said a lot of children do not have a bed of their own in which to sleep. She said many children share a bed with siblings or sleep on the floor.

Difficult sleeping arrangements affect the amount of sleep children get, which in turn affects their performance in school because it affects concentration.

The impact on students? performances are evident in their test scores. Mohn said Hillsboro schools have compared test scores from children who qualify financially for free or reduced lunches and those who don?t.

?Consistently, those on free and reduced lunches will score below those who aren?t,? he said.

Mohn said in a few cases, students receiving the lunches do score high and others score low.

?It tells us, I think, that because students are poor or have limited finances, it makes it harder for them to do well,? he said.

One reason they don?t do as well is because they often do not get to travel or go to museums. Even so, Mohn said some parents with limited resources make sure their children have those opportunities, too.

Mohn said parents who did not complete high school because they struggled with grades often do not hold high expectations for their children.

She said poverty can put students on the outside of school life.

?It is very, very difficult to get out of the poverty cycle,? Ogden said. ?A lot of times it is intergenerational.?

Some attempts have been made to break the cycle of poverty. ?Marion County was pretty aggressive in welfare reform and the back-to-work program,? Ogden said.

She said the average Kansas family receives welfare for 12 months, with most receiving benefits only for six months. Also, half of all Kansans receiving food stamps are children.

Ogden said children living in poverty get sick more often and are under environmental stress.

?The constant struggle to make ends meet creates stress,? Ogden said. ?When kids are anxious and depressed it affects learning.?

When children are forced to struggle each month, Ogden said it produces an attitude of resentment and neediness.

?In this day and age, it is very easy to identify who the have and have-nots are,? she said.

In school, nice clothes and school supplies separate the two.

?On TV, everybody has everything,? Ogden said. ?We have a lot of trouble with kids feeling victimized when they don?t have what others have.?

Without transportation, families are unable to access existing resources, which further limits children?s activities.

One example is summer recreation programs. Ogden said although the programs are wonderful, the transportation and fees required to get to and participate in activities often limits participation to middle-class families.

?Access to resources is a problem,? Ogden said. ?All kids should have equal access to activities that are just part of being a kid, and they don?t.?

Mike Moran feels it is important for students to learn the skills and build relationships in activities outside of school.

Ogden said one way some programs try to remain open for all kids is through offering scholarships to cover the fees. Still, some families can tap those resources because they don?t have a phone to find out about them.

Mohn said school officials try to make sure after-school programs are available at no cost.

In Hillsboro, a fund also has been established to help get kids involved in recreation programs. The money is donated by the Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Methodist Church Service Club.

Recently, the Kiwanis Club donated money to finish paying for a student?s band instrument that was going to be repossessed.

Schools also offer assistance through free and reduced lunches and breakfasts. To qualify for a reduced lunch, a child does not need to be considered in poverty.

Thirty-five percent of the students in Hillsboro schools qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to Mohn.

This is comparable to most other school districts in the county. In Peabody-Burns, 34 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunches, and 33 percent qualify at Marion.

Centre has the highest number, with 40 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunches. Goessel has the lowest with only 16 percent.

?From my perspective, one of the best things that has happened for children from lower income families is breakfasts,? Moran said.

?Free and reduced lunches are a godsend for those families,? Ogden said. She said this raises a concern in the summer, when kids don?t get school lunches.

?It is something to think about, what happens to those kids in the summer,? Ogden said.

Another way schools help students is through waived and reduced textbook fees. The fees are based on the same standard used for the lunch program.

Mohn also said the schools are providing training for teachers to make sure they hold the same expectations for all students.

?I think our society expects less from a poor child,? Mohn said. ?When you talk about society to me, that includes education.?

To help parents find other resources, school counselors connect families with agencies that can provide needed services.

Health care is not as big of issue for children in poverty.

Ogden said the state?s new Healthwave program has helped provide healthcare for children. Also, one dentist in Marion County still accepts medical cards.

?Doctors are very cooperative and good about working with agencies,? she said.

Ogden said there is no one solution to the problems facing children living poverty. But a number of things could help in different ways.

She suggests partnerships between businesses and schools, providing apprenticeship programs and having stronger vocational tracts for children who don?t plan on going to college.

She also suggests holding a drive every summer for shoe and school supplies for children, then selling those things to families at a reduced price.

?It is important for kids to feel like they earned it,? she said.

Ogden said disabled parents or single-parent homes with several children are really struggling.

?These are our families that are members of our community, their kids go to school with our kids,? Ogden said. ?The problem belongs to all of us.?

Ogden said public education and awareness are needed to solve the problem.

?We all need to take ownership of the problem,? she said. ?Education is a good starting point.?

Ogden said innovative, creative ways are needed to upgrade substandard housing in Marion County. She also said solutions are needed to alleviate transportation problems and job training, so that when youth graduate from high school, they are employable.

Mohn said residents need to reexamine their attitudes about low-income families.

?I seem to hear, ?If you?re poor it?s your own fault,? but I don?t know any children who choose to be poor,? Mohn said. ?We have to be careful not to tell children they cannot have as many opportunities.?

He said the school is doing what it can to see students get the education they deserve.

?To me, the main thing they need is opportunities,? he said.

Although Mohn feels awareness is increasing, he thinks people would be surprised at how tough some kids have it.

Said Ogden: ?It is going to take community mobilization and investment and the community working to together to solve the problem.?

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