By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
The number of children living in poverty has increased in all 99 Iowa counties in the past decade, pointing the members of a state public policy group and local officials to the recent economic downturn and what it means for children’s well-being.
The annual Iowa Kids Count report shows in 2010, 16.2 percent of Iowa children lived below the poverty line. This is an increase from 2000 when 10.8 percent of Iowa children faced poverty. The report also details achievement scores in math and English, which are on the rise, food assistance rates, and several health factors affecting children.
The child poverty rate in Clinton County as a whole sits slightly higher than the statewide average, at 18.7 percent, up from 12.8 percent in 2000. Clinton County did, however, fare better than some Iowa Counties including Black Hawk, Davis, Decatur, Lucas, Ringgold, Van Buren and Wayne Counties where more than one in four children lived in poverty.
While Clinton County was not apparently as hard hit as others in child poverty, data shows it surpassing the state average on students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Statewide, 38.2 percent of children are eligible to receive this aid, as are 41.1 percent of students in Clinton County. The percentage of eligible students is higher in the city of Clinton itself, with approximately 60 percent of students meeting the criteria to receive free or reduced lunch, according to Superintendent Deb Olson.
It’s a figure that doesn’t surprise Iowa Kids Count Director Michael Crawford.
“I hate to say I’m not surprised, but I’m not. The main cities in small urban counties are typically over 50 or 60 percent,” he said.
According to Crawford, the students who qualify for free or reduced lunch might not be below the poverty line, but most likely hover around it, causing some uncertainty about the availability of their next meal.
“If you’re sitting in class and you’re worried about your next meal you’re not concentrating on the lesson,” Crawford said.
Ultimately, this distraction and the possible repercussions can hinder a child’s ability to succeed through school, he said.
Despite the increased number of children facing financial hardship, test scores in reading and math have increased statewide, Clinton County included.
Fourth grade reading proficiency in Clinton County in 2011 was at 85.2 percent, up from 77.9 percent in 2003. Statewide, scores increased by 7.7 percent. Although Clinton County scores in eighth grade mathematics proficiency did not meet the state average of 77.7 percent, students still improved to 73.2 percent from 68.6 percent in 2003.
However, the gain in student achievement continues to be threatened by the factors surrounding poverty.
One of those factors is the transient level in the community, Olson believes. Because of changing home environments experienced by children in poverty, the district has more than 300 students come into the district after student enrollment counts Oct. 1 and around the same amount leave throughout the year, she said.
“Think about being a K-2 teacher and having 1 out of every five of your students in a state of fluctuation because of children moving in and out,” Olson said. “Not only for those students moving in and out, but also those students that remain in the classroom.”
On the bright side of the report, Crawford noted the decrease in teen birth rates, infant mortality and children deaths across the state. In the former, Clinton County has seen a 1.4 percent decrease in the past 11 years, with 4 percent of females aged 15-19 giving birth in 2011.
Also encouraging is the dip in state unemployment, which went from 6.1 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent in 2011.
“Maybe that’s a sign things are turning around,” Crawford said.
Still, he said, there’s work to be done including a push from state lawmakers for family sustaining income in order to combat the factors negatively impacting children.