Wednesday, October 30, 2013
By Paul Krieger, Intern for United Way
I remember my dad telling me stories about growing up in poverty. Of the hot summer sun in the San Joaquin Valley where he and his younger brother picked cotton for less than five cents a pound. Of the small, two room bungalow where the brothers lived with their mother, step-father and two sisters. Of sleeping on the kitchen floor during winters and on the porch during summers and of the dirty well water they used to wash and bathe themselves. Through it all my father maintained a strong determination and spirit that manifested itself in a youthful desire to become a preacher.
Yet without the intervention of a caring aunt and the excellent support and belief of his local school, he almost certainly would have fallen into the same generational poverty that marked his family. With their support, however, my father was able to be the first in his family to go to college, then on to graduate school and afterward, a rewarding career in public service. Because there were critical supports — concerned school counselors and teachers, a supportive faith community and a mentoring family member — he was able to prevail in the belief that if he worked hard enough, he could find a place in the world for himself and his family.
Yet not all children are as fortunate as my father. Many are unable to escape poverty’s downward pull. During my father’s college years, poverty steadily declined for all Americans, reaching 11.3 percent in 1973 according to the National Poverty Center. Today, however, childhood poverty is worse than ever, especially since the onset of the 2008 recession. According to UNICEF, the U.S. now has a childhood poverty rate of 23 percent, among the worst of the industrialized world. For comparison, our rate is slightly lower than Romania’s but higher than Spain or Latvia. This rate is even higher for minorities like African Americans and Native Americans, groups who suffer the worst during periods of recession such as our current one.
The situation for children in poverty in Oregon is particularly alarming when compared to the national situation. According to a report by Children First for Oregon, in 2011, 44 percent of children lived in poverty or in low-income families, with 24 percent at poverty level — an amount that is the 14th worst in the country and above the national average. Over half of Oregon students are now eligible for free or reduced lunches. As noted in this OregonLive article, the economy is not creating jobs fast enough to reduce the demand on public assistance. Many Oregonians are exhausting their unemployment benefits and turning to cash welfare, the number of which has more than doubled since 2006.
According to the American Psychological Association, the stress poverty places on families negatively impacts the ability of children to learn. The emotional toll leads to depression in children, lower attention spans and lower academic performance. This is a time when children learn to form friendships and adapt to the demands of school and their outside environment. Parents overwhelmed by financial stress are less able to meet the caregiving needs of their children and this in turn negatively impacts the educational readiness of the child — the largest single indicator of their future success and the biggest determinant for breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
To meet this crisis of our region’s children, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette is adopting a new strategic focus that seeks to help end this problem within a generation — a strategy that will involve a shift in the way we engage with the community: we will become an engaged organizer and partner of the community rather than simply the fundraising organization we have been known for being in the past. Our new focus will involve effecting outcomes in three key areas: successful kids, stable families and connected communities.
Not having a high school diploma effectively dooms a child to a life of poverty so we will strategically invest in and work with partners that support student success at all grade levels including preschool, high school graduation and college/career transition after high school. Recognizing that children live in families, we will also support programs that promote family health and stability. Finally, we believe that some of the best solutions grow out of communities themselves; we will therefore be making long-term investments in and work with a cohort of strong community partners.
To help kids succeed, we fund organizations that implement programs that support students all the way from preschool to high school graduation (the biggest determinate of overall life earning potential). For instance, Self-Enhancement, Inc. has a strong mentorship program concentrating on the needs of students both in and outside of class. I Have a Dream’s The Dreamer School Project, builds long-term relationships, academic and social support services and creates a “culture of college” within school. Or the Youth Advocacy Program at the Native American Youth and Family Center which provides intensive educational and culturally specific community services for Native youth, focusing on developing strong peer relations and collaborative problem-solving. Funded projects like these will help young students receive the supports they need both in class and without in order to maximize their chances of academic success.
So many years ago, my father was fortunate enough to receive the kind of supports he needed to overcome the obstacles that would have condemned him and his family to a life of poverty. Because of the support he received, he and his family were able to realize their dreams and build a middle-class life. The contributions you make to United Way can similarly help children from low-income families break the cycle of generational poverty, not only helping them reach their dreams but also ensuring our entire community becomes healthier and economically stronger.