Rhode Island had the highest child poverty rate in New England as of 2013, with 21.5 percent, or 44,923, of the Ocean State’s children living below the poverty line.
Those figures are according to KIDS COUNT’s new Issue Brief, “Child Poverty in Rhode Island,” released at the end of January.
To help combat the growing number of children living in poverty, KIDS COUNT held a roundtable discussion on Jan. 22 with policymakers, state agency leaders and members of the community.
KIDS COUNT, based in Providence, is an organization that advocates for the betterment of children’s lives by promoting policies and providing research that could help improve the health, education or general well being of children throughout the state.
For the brief, poverty was defined as any family of three, with two children, making $18,769, or any family of four, with two children, earning $23,624 a year. The brief utilized the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The key finding of the brief is that one-fifth of our state’s children are living below the poverty line. That is an alarming number,” said Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the executive director of KIDS COUNT.
Of these children, the majority, 38 percent, are five years of age or younger.
Child poverty is a direct reflection of the economy, Bryant said, and after the recession as employees suffered, so did their children. In contrast, the child poverty rate was only at 15.5 percent in 2008, and since then there has only been a steady rise.
For Warwick, Cranston and Johnston, the percentage of children living in poverty is a little less, but each has seen an increase over the last several years.
The Issue Brief Includes a graph that shows the child poverty rate for every community in the state from 2000 and then a five-year average of 2009 to 2013.
In Warwick, 1,260 children, or 8.4 percent, are living at or below the poverty line, up from 6.7 percent in 2000.
Johnston has 642 children, or 11.7 percent, at or below the poverty line, according to KIDS COUNT, where that figure was only 9 percent in 2000. Cranston has the highest percentage of children living in poverty, according to the study, with 13.9 percent, or 2,189 – up from 1,296 in 2000.
Stephanie Geller, the policy analyst for KIDS COUNT, said a good indicator for a rise in poverty rates is to look at the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch in schools, and all three communities have seen a rise there as well.
Statewide, nearly half of Rhode Island’s students, 47 percent, receive reduced or free lunch, up 5 percent since only 2009.
Cranston went up 6 percent to 38 percent of students. Johnston has seen the biggest shift from 37 to 45 percent of students on a reduced or free lunch program. Warwick as of 2013 has had only a 5 percent rise, now standing at 34 percent.
Geller said that although child poverty is an issue throughout the state, the worst cities are Central Falls, 41.1 percent; Providence, 39.7 percent; Pawtucket, 28.9 percent; and Woonsocket, 42.8 percent.
When children live below the poverty line, they are more likely to suffer in many other aspects of their life, according to Bryant.
“Having a warm and safe place to lay their head at night is so important to a child’s well being. There is a sense of urgency, these kids shouldn’t have to live like this,” Bryant said.
The stress children experience, which Bryant categorizes as “chronic” if not “toxic,” includes worrying about where they are going to sleep or if they are going to eat. Children often live in small or crowded housing, and these places can often be unsafe for children as well.
This “toxic” stress can have negative effects on their physical and mental health, can inhibit their academic performance and lead those same children to be more likely to fall below the poverty line later on in life.
Children living in poverty are less likely to complete school or go on to higher education and more likely to become a teen parent, receive federal aid or get arrested, among other outcomes.
Sadly, poverty is a cyclical issue, more often that not affecting generations.
“Kids are the next generation of parents and we need to make sure that they don’t fall into the same issues,” Bryant said. “These goals are in the best interest for everyone because kids our are future leaders.”
Kids Count said that solving child poverty throughout the state means investing in both short-term and long-term initiatives.
Suggestions in the Issue Brief including making it easier for parents to access work support programs, health coverage and child care, and even offering financial literacy services to help families better manage their funds.
Most importantly, Bryant said, it is essential that for both parents and children to receive better educations.
“We know that education is the best way out of poverty and it has been the best solution for generations,” Bryant said. “We need to make sure all children have access to excellent education options, but also have options to raise the skill set of the parents so that they can get better jobs to help their families.”
To do this, the brief suggests stressing the importance of full-day kindergarten, improving graduation rates, identifying at-risk students, and ensuring reading proficiency by third grade.
The study states, “Children who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school than proficient readers, profoundly affecting their future earnings.”
It is also suggested that first-generation college students from low-income families receive academic and financial support.
There is also a need for adult education in decreasing the child poverty rates. First and foremost, with more education parents can apply for better jobs, but parents are also role models for their children.
Bryant explained that people sometimes feel there is nothing that they can do in terms of helping these children, but there is in actuality a lot. She said donating food or clothing to local agencies as well as advocating for good policies could make a big difference in someone’s life.
Similarly, she said volunteering with community action programs can help entire families that are facing a life in poverty.
Although, the statistics may seem dismal, Bryant said there may just be a chance in improving the lives of children living in poverty.
“I think there is a ray of hope this year. The unemployment rate is decreasing and there is a real dedication to economic recovery,” she said. “With success in those areas, there is a greater chance to see a decrease in the number of children living in poverty.”
For more information on KIDS COUNT, or its Issue Brief, visit www.rikidscount.org.