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In The News

Despite Economic Recovery, Number of Florida Children in Poverty Continues to Rise

Original Source - Orlando Sentinel

by Kate Santich

Despite Florida's improving job market, the number of children living in poverty here grew from 18 percent to 24 percent in recent years, a new national report finds.

The numbers — from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count Data Book, released today — showed an increasingly grim financial picture for the youngest Floridians from 2008 to 2013, the most recent year for which research is available. By that point, the number of kids living below the federal poverty had reached 969,000, or nearly one in four.

"The reality is that even with the so-called recovery, we still have a lot of parents who are unemployed and underemployed, wages are stagnant and, in Central Florida, a lot of families are spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent," said Robert Brown, president and CEO of Heart of Florida United Way. "That adds up to a huge population of children in poverty."

In 2013, the official poverty threshold was $23,624 for a family of two adults and two children — though the state has also seen a troubling rise in the number of kids raised by single parents during those same five years, from 36 percent to 40 percent.

Coupled with low wages for many of the state's newest jobs, the problem means many families are unlikely to get ahead anytime soon, said Roy Miller, president of The Children's Campaign in Florida, a nonprofit watchdog group working to improve children's well-being.

"It's incredibly tough for low-income families," he said. "Some of them work two and even three jobs, but they're still not able to raise their children out of poverty. For some groups of children, the economic recovery has not reached them, and there's some question of whether it will ever reach them without serious changes."

Nationally, the report found an increase from 18 percent to 22 percent of children in poverty. Florida also fared worse than the national average in the number of children whose parents lack "secure" employment, as opposed to seasonal or labor-pool jobs, with a third of kids now falling into that category up from 28 percent. And 42 percent of kids now live in households that spend too much of their income on rent, putting them at risk for homelessness. Though an improvement from 49 percent in 2008, the rate is still significantly higher than the national figure of 36 percent.

"We know the housing market is rebounding, but at the same time buying a house is not an option for many of these families, and their rent is eating up so much of their income that it makes everything else more difficult," said Norin Dollard, co-director of Florida Kids Count, part of the nationwide network under the Annie E. Casey Foundation's project. "When you live that close to the bone, anything that goes wrong can throw you into a tailspin."

But the news isn't all bad. The report also found improvements in other barometers of childhood well-being — notably in education and health insurance.

High-school students graduating on time rose from 67 percent to 75 percent from the 2007-08 school year to 2013. Fourth-graders considered proficient in reading rose from 34 percent to 39 percent. And eighth-graders proficient in math increased from 27 percent to 31 percent.

"To me, it's very clearly the result of the school-accountability movement," said Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette. "There has been a lot of criticism of accountability measures in recent years — and I would agree that the volume of tests is too great — but since we've started to measure outcomes and hold schools accountable, we've seen a slow, steady climb. I don't think people realize how far we've come."

Teen birth rates also fell dramatically — from 40 births for every 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 to just 25, a reflection of the national trend. And the number of children without health insurance dropped from 10 percent to 7 percent, a result, Dollard said, of an aggressive outreach campaign by Florida KidCare, the state's network of insurance plans for low-income families.

Still, turning around the problems of underemployment and generational poverty is likely to be a tough battle, child-welfare advocates said.

"The recovery has been an uneven one," said Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank, the region's main supplier of meals and groceries to families in poverty. "We're grateful there are critical programs in place — food stamps and food subsidies — but I don't see any increased budgets ahead for those things."

At the Annie E. Casey Foundation, senior research associate Florencia Gutierrez said the solutions need to focus both on improving opportunities and wages for low-income working parents — including more flexibility to care for sick children — and on increasing high-quality educational access for kids, both in the first few years of life and once they reach school age. The latter is especially critical for black and Hispanic children, who fared worse than their counterparts in most measures.

"In this country, the demographics are shifting, and soon we're going to be living in a country where the minority kids are the majority," Gutierrez said. "If we as a country don't really think about improving the outcomes of these children, it's going to be very difficult for us to continue to compete on a global scale. It will impact all of us."