Hoping For Better
Report Says Childhood Poverty On The Rise
HARRISONBURG — Danger lurked around every corner of the Mercy House playground, or so it seemed from the viewpoint of Bill Brumfield and Dawn Branam.
Watchful parents that they are, the couple shouted directions primarily to Amanda, Branam’s 10-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.
Don’t stand on the swing. Don’t ride a miniature car down a slide (in the girl’s defense, she didn’t plan to: She plays “doll house” in the area above the slide).
And don’t let your sister, Alicia, 2, run around with a sucker in her mouth. And Alicia, don’t run around with a sucker in your mouth, her parents say.
“I didn’t have them that far apart on purpose,” said Branam, 38, whose family moved into the temporary shelter on North High Street in mid-May. “In a way, it’s kind of good. … [But] they have their little girl spats.”
The biggest threat to the girls’ lives, though, is something less visible: For the girls and youth like them around Virginia, it’s the economic well-being of their family that’s of most concern, according to Richmond-based Voices for Virginia’s Children.
“We’re trending in the wrong direction,” said Ted Groves, director of the organization’s Kids Count.
A project of the national Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count is billed as the top source for data on child and family well-being in the United States, the organization says.
The foundation serves to help children at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health situations.
The 2014 Kids Count, which uses 2012 U.S. Census Bureau numbers, among other data, was released this week.
Residents of Harrisonburg’s Mercy House, the city’s only shelter serving homeless families with children, are counted in the report.
The study is packed with statistics measuring economical, educational and health trends among youth, and results are mixed for how well they’re doing.
For example, a smaller percentage of children now live in families where the head of household lacks a high school diploma, dropping from 21 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 2012, according to the report.
Also, through medical advances and policy changes such as efforts to require seat belts and bicycle helmets, the death rate for children and teens has fallen over the last 20 years from 44 deaths to 22 per 100,000 children, data show.
But the challenge of overcoming poverty for children remains, including among those living in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Groves said.
In 1990, the city’s poverty rate among children was 15 percent, Groves said, and it was 12 percent in the county.
By 2012, the report says, Harrisonburg’s rate grew to 27 percent — 2,155 children out of 7,507. In the county, the figure is now 14 percent — 2,514 among 17,861.
Since 2005, the city’s rate has gone up 8 percent, and the county’s by 3 percent, Groves said.
Around the Shenandoah Valley, which stretches from Winchester to Roanoke in the study, the 2014 Kids Count poverty rate stands at 17 percent, slightly higher than the state figure of 15 percent. That translates to more than 29,000 children out of nearly 169,500 in poverty in the Valley.
The federal government defines poverty based on the size of a family and its income. In calendar year 2012, a family of two adults and two children fell in the poverty category if their annual income was below $23,283.
As the state recovers from the recent recession, which technically ended in the U.S. in June 2009, poverty among children remains a problem in Virginia, Groves said.
“Part of it is, we just went through the biggest recession we’ve had since the Depression,” he said.
Don Driver, director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Department of Social Services, said he’s seen the recession’s effect on children through a growth in Medicaid enrollees and those receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
He said he wasn’t surprised at the Kids Count report, adding that it’s unlikely poverty rates have changed from the 2012 census figures cited in it.
“I think we’re just slowly recovering from the recession,” Driver said Friday morning. “If the economy was changing quickly, then I would say yes [the numbers are outdated]. … Our numbers tell us the need for assistance is the same.”
In October 2007, 4,644 children were on Medicaid. By October 2013, that number had grown to more than 10,000.
The number of SNAP recipients in the city and county nearly doubled over the same period, from 6,447 to 11,679. How many of those are children could not be confirmed Friday.
A Better Life
From July 2013 to June 2014, Mercy House served 90 children, Executive Director Twila Lee said. In calendar year 2012, the shelter had 81 children.
It’s not an entirely fair comparison, though, because since 2012, Mercy House has tried to get families out on their own faster, creating more space for additional families to move into the shelter, Lee said.
She urges families living in poverty to understand that they can overcome their circumstances, adding that not having an iPod, cellphone or television does not mean you’re poor.
If they do not have the ambition to better their lives, a culture of poor health and school performance that often is attached to poverty gets passed down to children, she said.
Mercy House asks its residents to perform 20 hours of community service a week to get them used to having a routine to follow.
“It’s amazing how quickly the depression goes away,” Lee said.
Brumfield, 46, and Branam, who are not married, met online after Branam’s husband died more than five years ago.
They lived in her home state of New Jersey for several years until moving to Harrisonburg.
Though they did not have a place to live lined up, Harrisonburg is more affordable and it’s Brumfield’s hometown, they said. The family lived in a city hotel before being referred to Mercy House by Social Services.
Branam is receiving Social Security disability benefits while Brumfield is unemployed.
They hope to find a permanent house soon, ideally in Harrisonburg, and then iron out their job situation.
Harrisonburg has been a welcome change for Amanda, her mother says, because she was treated well at Smithland Elementary School.
In New Jersey, she was a target for bullying because of a brace she wore for scoliosis, which causes an abnormal curve of the spine.
“She’s a lot happier [here],” Brumfield said. “She’s a little upset because we don’t have our own place. [But] I haven’t heard her say anything bad about it here.”
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org