ARIZONA'S CHILDREN IN THE CROSSHAIRS OF POVERTY
For most of us who grew up in this land of plenty, it is hard to imagine how it would feel to go to bed at night hungry and to not know whether there would be any food tomorrow . How hard would it be to pay attention in school when you are hungry? Believe it or not, at least twenty seven per cent of Arizona children may have this experience on a fairly regular basis. The most recent statistics show Arizona ranks 47th overall in the US for the economic well-being of its children.
Ron Barnes' Hungry Kids Project has been working for the past three years to provide nutritious meals for children to take home on weekends during the school year in the Prescott and Humboldt Unified School Districts and added the Chino Valley District last fall. This past year, they fed 142 kids in Prescott, 100 in the Humboldt District and 100 in Chino Valley. They would have doubled those numbers if they had had the resources. Children are eligible for free school meals when their households' income level is 130% of the poverty level. No less than 41% of all students in PUSD qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program, 62% in HUSD, and 71% in Chino Valley. PUSD has 50 homeless students, HUSD has 358, and CVUD has 200, according to Barnes. His project is funded through grants and donations, which are used to buy food. Donations can be made to each school district's educational foundation with a note in the check memo line specifying that it is for the Hungry Kids Project.
Our own Open Door delivers food bags to 520 preschool children through the Weekend Family Food Program every week during the school year and has been doing so since 2009. Previously- available funds from First Things First have dried up, so the program is struggling this school year. Much-needed donations may be sent to Open Door and earmarked for the Weekend Family Food Program.
The results of a plethora of studies on children and poverty are well-known. And, according to the Arizona Partnership to End Childhood Hunger, another child is born into poverty in our state every half hour. All the data agree that children who experience even occasional hunger because of limited resources have more health problems than kids who never go hungry, and they do worse in school, are more aggressive, and tend to have anxiety, emotional problems, and poor self-esteem. Nutritional deficiencies in infants and toddlers can interfere with brain development, and such cognitive deficits can never be remediated sufficiently to give those children a chance at breaking the cycle of poverty as adults.
Arizona is also facing a literacy crisis in early-childhood education, primarily due to a paucity of books and other literacy experiences in disadvantaged youngsters' homes. Early intervention is vital to future success for these children. Unfortunately, Head Start and publicly-funded preschool programs were hit hard this year by federal sequester cuts which took about $9.5 million from Arizona child care and preschools. Arizona no longer funds any kind of early-childhood education, though 39 other states do. Lawmakers imposed a waiting list for the state's child-care subsidy program four years ago. Since then, an estimated 33,000 eligible children have been denied subsidies.
According to the Arizona Republic, our child-welfare system continues to be strained by increased reports of abuse and neglect. Children in foster care increased by a sobering 40% in the last three years. “We're seeing more and more families in trouble. They're losing every benefit that they had,” says Marsha Porter, director of the Phoenix Crisis Nursery. Some officials have cited previous budget cuts that slashed child-care subsidies and other programs for struggling families during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. In light of the societal consequences, these appear to have been very costly cuts.
Prescott United Methodist Church's outreach in the form of such events as the recent Shoes for the Shepherd are a tremendous help for impoverished children and their families, but there is so much yet to be done. The eradication of childhood hunger and poverty must become a statewide priority.