Poverty affects nearly 1-in-4 Rowan children

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scott Jenkins
SALISBURY — Every night for more than a year, children have slept in the Rowan Helping Ministries night shelter.
Nearly half of all families in Rowan received government assistance last fiscal year.
Three in five children in the Rowan-Salisbury School System receive free or reduced-price lunch.
Here’s one more fact that puts all those in context:
Nearly one in four of Rowan County’s children live in poverty.
That’s according to a report recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The numbers increased significantly during the Great Recession. And neither the authors of that study nor local government and ministry officials believe the numbers have waned since, or that they will soon.
By the numbers
In 2009 — the last year for which information was available for the Casey Foundation report — an estimated 500,000 children in North Carolina lived in families earning less than the federal poverty level of just over $22,000 for a family of four.
The number of children living in poverty statewide increased by 18 percent between 2007 and 2009. At the close of the recession, 22.5 percent of North Carolina children lived in poverty.
Rowan was one of 50 counties with a child poverty rate at or above that state average. In 2007, the rate of child poverty in Rowan was 17.1 percent. By 2009, that figure had climbed to 24.3 percent, an increase of more than 2,400 children.
And some of those children are among the one in 10 statewide whose families struggle to survive in extreme poverty, meaning they live on less than half the federal poverty wage level.
According to the study on child well-being, the increase happened after two years of improvement. In 2005, the child poverty rate in Rowan was 22.4 percent, and in 2006 it was 19.3 percent.
Counties around Rowan fared better: In Cabarrus, the 2009 child poverty rate was 16.4 percent; Davidson, 22.4 percent; Davie, 17.9 percent; Iredell, 17.9 percent; and Stanly, 21.2 percent.
Statewide, Wake County had the lowest rate, with 12 percent of children living in poverty. Vance County had the highest rate, with nearly half of children there living in poverty.
‘Just shocking’
Sandra Wilkes, director of the Rowan County Department of Social Services, said she’s not surprised by the Casey Foundation’s figures. She’s got some of her own that show how rough the economy has been locally.
In 2010, Rowan County had 53,249 households, including those without children. During the fiscal year just ended, 26,000 of them received some type of government assistance, either Medicaid, food stamps or Work First financial aid.
The number of households receiving food stamps, she noted, rose by more than 2,000.
“I’ve never seen the size of the increase … as we have experienced this past fiscal year,” she said.
The number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunch in Rowan-Salisbury schools has risen steadily as well. According to the Casey Foundation report, that figure went from 49.8 percent in the 2007-2008 school year to 55.5 percent in 2009-2010. The school system’s latest figures show the number at just over 60 percent.
Wilkes said the increasing requests for aid are a direct result of people being out of work. Unemployment figures released by the state on Friday showed that nearly 12 percent of the work force in Rowan is jobless.
Not even after the closing of Pillowtex put thousands out of work in 2003 has the need been so great, Wilkes said.
“It’s just shocking that 49 percent of our Rowan County households are receiving public assistance,” she said. “They’re people that are just out of work. I’m thankful that we have this program for them.”
Seeking shelter
Cam Campbell, director of resource development for Rowan Helping Ministries, said the economy has forced people to seek help who have never before needed it.
“We’re serving more people,” she said. “Our numbers that come in to interview have been going up.”
In the fiscal year ending June 30, she said, 1,532 families who had never been to Rowan Helping Ministries came there for groceries, clothes and financial assistance.
“That just shows there are more children and families with this economy struggling,” she said.
Many have lost their homes in the struggle. Because of foreclosures and families in which both parents have lost jobs and can’t afford rent, an estimated 18,500 children go homeless in North Carolina each year, the Casey Foundation report says.
Campbell said that’s been reflected locally in the fact that the ministry has been feeding children daily, and each night for more than a year, at least one family has slept in its shelter.
“We have children eating every day in our soup kitchen,” she said. “We’ve had children in the shelter every night since last July, which was a rarity.”
To accommodate the need for housing children, Rowan Helping Ministries has converted an office into a makeshift family room with enough space for a mother and two children. If a larger family needs a place to stay, the agency uses its lobby.
It’s another sign of the hard times.
“When they built this shelter in 1986, they didn’t think women and children would be homeless, or families would be homeless,” she said.