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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Effects of growing up in poor households can be lifelong

Kids at the Head Start program at the Northeast Community Center play under a parachute Thursday.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

When Lori Pfingst considers the statistics that will tell the tale of this recession, she isn’t thinking about GDP or unemployment.

She’s thinking about teen pregnancy. Low birthweight babies. WASL scores and college enrollments.

As the recession swells the ranks of the impoverished, it takes a particular, long-term toll on children, experts say. In Washington state alone, nearly 40,000 children are expected to slip into poverty by 2010; nationwide, an additional 800,000 kids entered poverty between 2007 and 2008, before the recession really hit.

And however quickly the economy begins its official recovery, the consequences for kids living in poverty are wide-ranging. Children who grow up in poor households tend to do worse in school and end up in trouble with the law. They’re less likely to go to college and more likely to get pregnant at a young age. They’re more likely to commit crimes or become victims of crimes, and more likely to grow up and live in poverty themselves.

“The impact of this really can’t be overstated,” said Pfingst, assistant director of Washington KidsCount, an annual statistical survey of children’s well-being. “When children are born into poverty, it affects every single outcome of their lives.”

A new report from Duke University asserts that the recession will undo decades of progress for children and families. Duke’s Child and Youth Well-Being Index measures a range of categories; it estimates that all progress made in “family economic well-being” since 1975 will be wiped out by this recession.

The Duke index predicts that families will suffer from the expected kinds of effects, such as joblessness, lower incomes or homelessness. But it also suggests that children will pay other prices, in greater obesity and health problems, because families will be more likely to rely on low-cost fast food; on social relationships and stability, as families are forced to move; and on increased behavioral problems and crime, with young people as both victims and perpetrators.

“The impact of the current recession on children will be dramatic,” the Duke report concludes.

No room

The school year just began for Spokane County’s Head Start programs – which provide a range of educational, health and family services for low-income kids – so director Patty Allen is still trying to gauge what effect the economy is having on the families her programs serve.

One thing is certain: Even before the recession, Head Start couldn’t take every child who qualified. And this year, it’s full again.

“Certainly, there is a need,” she said. “We’ve been fully enrolled for the last several years, and we’re again fully enrolled.”

More than 1,500 children are served by the Head Start programs in Spokane – Head Start, Early Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance programs, which provide services from prenatal care to age 5. Allen said the local organization has applied for two new grants under the federal stimulus plan that would allow them to add 108 slots for kids.

Allen said that as the recession disrupts families, it can affect children profoundly. People may have to move – forcing their kids into unfamiliar or temporary situations. They may lose the ability to pay for child care. Tension can spring up between meeting the needs of their children and trying to find work or go back to school to get ahead.

Marianne DeMarco, coordinator of the northeast SNAP office, said her agency is seeing a lot of the “chronically poor” during the recession – but also a lot of families who’ve never had to seek help before.

“They’re very slow to do it,” she said. “They’re very self-conscious about it. They had no idea there was this kind of service here.”

Kids in those families may be affected in ways that might not be immediately apparent. One program at SNAP offers Chase Youth Commission scholarships for children to play Little League baseball, DeMarco said.

“They’re kids who’ve always played and they never thought about paying $120 to play Little League,” she said.

Of course, many families are facing worse circumstances than that. Janel Dudley, social services specialist with Spokane County Head Start, surveyed Head Start staff members about the kinds of economic struggles faced by families using the program.

One noted a family in the program – two grandparents who took in their grandkids – is on the verge of having their home repossessed. Several staff members reported families moving in with grandparents or others, moving to cheaper housing because they can’t afford the rent, or turning to homeless shelters. They reported several families struggling with job losses, and turning in increasing numbers to social programs for help.

Here are a few other comments from the survey:

•“Some of the families would like to go back to school to get their GED, but due to the economy … the choice has to be food on the table and paying the rent.”

•“An interesting difference in the working population is seen with men unable to find jobs and therefore staying at home with children, and the women are the breadwinners supporting families with a lower income than the men typically would bring home.”

•“Many of our children seem very hungry during the meal times.”