July 28, 2012 10:29:31 PM
Children in the Golden Triangle have been particularly impacted by the specter of poverty, but a report released this week offers a bit of good news: They're healthier and better educated than ever.
The findings were released Wednesday in the 23rd annual Kids Count Data Book, which is researched and published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
But until Mississippi tackles its poverty problem, children will continue to fall behind, said state Kids Count Director Dr. Linda Southward, who also serves as coordinator of the Family and Children Research Unit at Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center.
"Research continues to confirm that the influence of poverty underscores and is a predictor of negative outcomes, particularly in the areas of health, education, safety and economically stable families," Southward said Wednesday. "When there is a limited tax base, due to high unemployment rates and lack of access to an educated, trained workforce, the stage is set for less than optimal outcomes."
That was the case for Lowndes, Oktibbeha and Clay counties. As poverty and unemployment rates rose, even small achievements lagged behind those elsewhere.
There's no shortage of local organizations and volunteers working to eradicate stumbling blocks and improve the lives of families and children, but the workers are many and the needs are great.
Locally, poverty and unemployment rates climbed in 2010, outpacing the state average of 10.4 percent. Clay County saw its 2010 unemployment rate soar to 19.4 percent, leaving 41.3 percent of children below the age of 18 in poverty.
Lowndes County's unemployment rate was 12.2 percent, with 37.2 percent of children growing up in poverty. By contrast, Oktibbeha County weathered the recession better, with a 10.6 percent unemployment rate in 2010.
Population shifts also took a toll, with Lowndes County dropping by 3.1 percent, Clay County plummeting by 5.7 percent and Oktibbeha County gaining 3.8 percent.
The cumulative effects of poverty place "chronic stressors" on families, Southward said, but a "two-generation strategy" -- starting by improving parents' economic and education levels -- helps the entire family.
That's where groups like the Greater Columbus Learning Center step in, assisting adults of all ages with college and career readiness, United Way of Lowndes County Executive Director Jan Ballard said. Whether helping students earn GEDs or prepping them for college entrance exams, the goal is to increase employability and put people on the path to an independent, poverty free life.
Family and Community
Mississippi also ranked last in family issues, with nearly half of all children growing up in single-parent households -- 17 percent in which the head of household lacked a high school diploma.
In Clay County, 50.3 percent of children were living in single-parent households in 2010, with Oktibbeha County following closely at 45.5 percent. In Lowndes County, 42.1 percent of children were being raised by one parent.
At the Families First Resource Center, under the umbrella of Sally Kate Winters Family Services in West Point, Community Educator Monique Tillman sees firsthand the benefits of strong families.
She works on parenting and abstinence programs at churches and schools in nine counties, helping parents and children communicate better so youth can avoid peer pressure and teen pregnancy, which showed a significant decrease in Lowndes County from 78.4 percent in 2009 to 64.6 percent in 2010.
Lowndes County saw fewer babies born at low birth weights, but premature births increased slightly, as did infant mortality rates. The same held true in Oktibbeha and Clay counties, although infant mortality rates in Oktibbeha County decreased from 9.6 percent to 8.9 percent and decreased in Clay County from 13.6 percent to 10.5 percent.
Child abuse and juvenile delinquency cases ran the gamut.
Lowndes County served the fewest child abuse and neglect victims -- 53, down from 83 the previous year -- and dropped from 224 juvenile delinquents to 162. But in Oktibbeha County, child abuse was up -- 86 victims compared with 67 the previous year -- but juvenile delinquents decreased from 95 to 73. In Clay County, child abuse victims decreased, but the number of juvenile delinquents rose.
The downtown Columbus YMCA is doing its part to create healthier children, Director Andy Boyd said Wednesday.
One innovative program they've offered for five years caters to students from nearby Franklin Academy Medical Sciences and Wellness Magnet School. During a two-week, 18-hour program, students walk to the YMCA for games, exercise, mentoring and life skills.
On days the children know they're coming to the YMCA, attendance at school is better, Boyd says.
Though it wasn't by much -- Mississippi still ranked 48th -- Southward found hope in the education gains, with the greatest leaps being made in the number of children attending preschool, considered by many to be a top predictor of future success.
Statewide, 50.6 percent of children attended preschool between 2005 and 2009, but both Lowndes and Clay counties ranked higher, with the former reporting 61 percent and the latter reporting 62.8 percent. Oktibbeha County lagged, with 43.1 percent of children enrolled in preschool.
But Oktibbeha County came out ahead in graduates, with 84.5 percent receiving high school diplomas and 39.9 percent earning a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 80.5 percent and 20.1 percent respectively in Lowndes County and 78.4 percent and 18.1 percent respectively in Clay County.
At the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Golden Triangle, education is a strong underlying theme, Executive Director Joyce Ellenwood said Wednesday. From after-school tutoring programs to homework assistance, staff members work to nourish mind, body and soul.
This fall, the organization is launching "Diplomas 2 Degrees," a college preparatory program to prepare students between ages 13 through 18 for a successful college career.
"Education plays a most important, essential role," Ellenwood said. "Education is the passport to that child's future. It allows children to open themselves up to opportunities around the world."
Around the nation
The Kids Count survey ranked New Hampshire, Massachussetts, and Vermont as the top three states for children, while Nevada, New Mexico and Mississippi ranked lowest. But those numbers shifted depending upon the category.
North Dakota took the top spot in economic well-being, but Massachusetts was first in education. Vermont was first in health, but New Hampshire was first in family.
Mississippi was the only state to rank last in two categories -- economic well-being and family. Nevada ranked lowest in education, and Montana ranked lowest in health.
For a full breakdown of the 2012 Kids Count data, including interactive charts, visit datacenter.kidscount.org.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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