News and Tribune

March 20, 2013

ANDERSON: Poverty and children: How do we break the cycle?

Local columnist

— I remember the first time I felt poor. I was in the fourth grade at McCulloch Elementary School. My classmates had all been invited to a birthday party, but I had not. 

I never forgot that feeling of alienation and rejection. So, from a first-hand experience I can talk about the fact that it hurts to be spared not having to buy a present. I can also talk about wearing homemade dresses, thrift-store and yard-sale clothes, and how it feels to go to bed hungry. 

In this region, according to the United Way statistics, one out of every five children goes to bed hungry. In Jeffersonville, New Albany, Louisville and the surrounding area, our children experience hunger just as a child in any third-world country would. Why? We have food pantries, food stamps, soup kitchens and churches that feed. How could this happen and why would we let it? 

Maybe it’s easy to just list statistics because they are numbers, but every one of those children has a name. Their parents love them as fiercely as you love your children, but they do not have the capacity to furnish the rent, the utilities and the food. 

We have housed some of those kids at the Williams Emergency Shelter as their parents find their way to us. One was 4 months old. His mother was from a small rural community and her son was not getting enough nourishment because he had multiple health problems and mom was too young to know how to care for him properly. In the first two weeks at the shelter, with the help of a local pediatrician and the nurse advocates, the baby had gained 4 pounds. He was happier, well cared for and his mother had learned some parenting skills she wasn’t familiar with when she first came to us. 

Education and training is the key to helping people climb out of poverty, and it is a climb. The mom is a young high school dropout with no formal training in how to raise a child, manage a household or live on her own. All that will have to be learned as a young adult. 

Our community must begin to assess what is important to us as a community. Do we really want to have a community that heralds only 18.5 percent of our adults with a college education? Are we satisfied with 40 percent or more of our kids on free and reduced lunch? Do we plan to have a community that has opportunity and growth for all of its residents or just those with enough money to purchase opportunity or growth? Will we plan for a future for all our residents or just those deemed worthy? Will we continue to ignore the realities of our community while we plan for bridges, roads and jobs? Who will drive over those bridges or help to build them? Who will fill those jobs? 

In the two counties covered by the News and Tribune, there were less than 500 families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Welfare), but more than 11,000 people on food stamps. There is a disparity of wealth in our communities with a large amount of people struggling to get by. What do we need to do as a community to decrease those numbers? 

I have always believed that human development was as important as community and economic development; that we lacked as a community because we didn’t plan for the “building up” of our own people. 

It is common sense to focus on educating the future, stabilizing the present and respecting the past. In planning, we need to assess the truth about the community and that truth includes large segments of people in poverty, without health care and short on education. 

Training programs for the jobs that are coming with local high schools would be helpful, so would a job training program offered by Ivy Tech Community College. The program would be designed to train for a large-scale employer. 

Also, it would be good to train future entrepreneurs, as small business has been the backbone of this country for as long as we have existed. We need to educate our future leadership to think in terms of entrepreneurship and then we need to support their efforts.

We have to deal with drugs and alcohol. There is an increase of spice and bath-salts usage in this area and heroin is on the rise as well. Alcohol deaths or related illness eat up medical dollars and not much effort is put into alcohol-related programs. Turning Point, Serenity House, Bliss House and Jerry’s Place try to deal with the issue, but they have only so much money and so much room. 

Crime is always a concern, and we are on the TV news almost nightly because of it. We cannot deal with the issue without dealing with the whys of crime. We will have urban issues because we border Louisville and all the bridges travel both ways. 

If you want to know what crimes we have to fight, watch the evening news — we will parallel Louisville. We cannot expect to deal with the issues of poverty, homelessness, education, mental and physical health, housing, and education without money. To say we will is to say we will continue to ignore the situation or talk about how hopeless it is to fix the problem. 

We live in the greatest country in the world, we have more resources than any other people in the world, we are hard workers and we know how to plan. So given all of that, when will we bring America home?

— Barbara Anderson is executive director of Haven House Services Inc.