Number of Iowa kids living in poverty rises

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Des Moines Register
By:  Mary Stegmeir
December 3, 2012

The number of children in poverty has increased over the past decade in all of Iowa's 99 counties, a sobering statistic that members of a state public policy group link to the national economic downturn.

In seven counties, more than one in four children in 2010 lived below the poverty level, set at $22,314 for a family of four.

The statewide child poverty rate sits at 16.2 percent, up from 10.8 percent in 2000, according to the annual Iowa Kids Count report released today.

Although the report also shows that students are performing better in math and reading than they did a decade ago, the growing number of Iowa youngsters in poverty could threaten those gains, said Michael Crawford, director of Iowa Kids Count and a member of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines.

"It's clear that families are continuing to struggle," he said. "One in seven kids in Iowa now lives in poverty; a third of our kids are eligible for free and reduced meals."

A handful of communities have been hit especially hard. Childhood poverty rates exceed 25 percent in northeast Iowa's Black Hawk County, as well as in southern Iowa's Davis, Decatur, Lucas, Ringgold, Van Buren and Wayne counties.

Sheila Baird, president of the Cedar Valley United Way in Waterloo, said the Black Hawk County's high child poverty rate was distressing, but not surprising.

Census data released this fall showed that the median before-tax household income in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan area dropped by nearly $2,200 in one year, going from $46,613 in 2010 to $44,416 in 2011.

"That's just not a lot for people with children to live on," Baird said.

In another 11 counties, the percentage of children in poverty grew by more than 70 percent. Jasper County, which includes the city of Newton, posted the largest change. The child poverty rate there rose from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 15.7 percent in 2010.

Locals say the increase is tied to the 2007 closing of the Maytag headquarters and washing machine factory in Newton. Roughly 1,800 people lost their jobs when the company was bought out by Whirlpool Corp.

A wind turbine plant that opened in 2008 in Newton has replaced some of the positions, but unemployment in Jasper County remains higher than the state average.

Only 16 percent of students in the Newton school district qualified for free and reduced-price meals in 2002. Today, more than half of those in kindergarten through 12th grade participate in the program. District staff have adjusted their instructional practices and bolstered community outreach to prevent economic hardships from derailing academic achievement, Superintendent Steve McDermott said.

"Whatever it takes" has become the unofficial motto of Newton teachers, he said.

"We've seen an increase in financial poverty, for sure, but we've adjusted how we approach families and student learning," McDermott said. "Due to a lot of work by our students and staff, our scores have actually improved in certain spots over that period of time."

Statewide Kids Count data also include reason for optimism. Fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores are trending upward, despite increasing poverty. More children are attending preschool than a decade ago, and more mothers are receiving prenatal care in their first trimester.

Yet the economic slowdown continues to affect several indicators of child well-being.

The number of Iowans receiving food assistance, for example, nearly tripled between 2000 and 2011, said Crawford, of Iowa Kids Count.

A bright spot in the report is a slight decline in the state's unemployment rate, which went from 6.1 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent in 2011. Crawford said that number needs to shrink further for Iowa to decrease its childhood poverty rates.

"We'd like to see our state leaders continue to work toward not just full employment, but family-sustaining incomes," Crawford said. "A well-paying job could help a lot of families become self-sufficient."

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on December 4, 2012 4:32 PM.

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