WHITPAIN >> It wasn’t until 2015 that the percentage of Montgomery County children living in poverty dropped back down to below the 2008 pre-recession level, Public Citizens for Children & Youth reported in its October 2016 “Left Out: The Status of Children in Montgomery County.”
“Even so, we have 7 percent of the kids in this county in poverty,” Donna Cooper, PCCY’s executive director, said at a “Roundtable to Keep Montco Kids from Getting Left Out,” held Tuesday, Feb. 14, by PCCY and the Bucks-Mont Collaborative at Montgomery County Community College’s main campus in Blue Bell.
Other speakers at the roundtable, which had about 100 attendees, were Montgomery County commissioners’ Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Norristown Family Center Director Julie O’Connor and VNA Foundation of Greater North Penn Executive Director Joanne Kline.
The data for the PCCY report was from 2014, and some of the numbers have improved, Arkoosh said — Montgomery County has among the lowest unemployment rates and highest average wages in the state — but improvement is needed in other areas, including more access to affordable, high-quality child care, reductions in infant mortality rates and screening and treating children for lead paint exposure and poisoning.
Federal guidelines call for children to be screened for lead by age 3, but three-quarters of Montgomery County children aren’t, Cooper said.
“When we don’t identify young children who are potentially exposed to lead and potentially become poisoned by lead, intervene, treat and remediate their homes, then what we end up with is a child who’s likely to have problems for the rest of their life,” Arkoosh said.
Those problems can include learning disabilities and actions that result in the person being sent to jail, she said.
That makes more costs to the community, such as for special education, Cooper said.
“It’s millions over the lifetime because we failed to do the tests when they were needed and to remediate the home,” she said.
The 12,513 Montgomery County students classified as living in poverty are enough to fill 500 classrooms, Cooper said, and that doesn’t include those who are in working poor families.
About one-quarter of the students in the county receive free or reduced-price lunches at school, with many more eligible, but not taking part, she said.
PCCY also looked at statistics for neighboring Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Philadelphia counties. Those counties continue to have higher rates of child poverty than the pre-recession numbers, Cooper said.
“Real estate and rent in Montgomery County unfortunately is disproportionately high,” Cooper said, “so you have the highest share of families who have a rent burden that is above 30 percent.”
“Every one of your school districts has many more low-income children today than it did in 2008,” because, while the economy has rebounded, wages have not increased enough to boost those at the bottom of the economy, she said.
State funding for school districts has remained flat or, when there have been increases, the money has been eaten up by increased pension costs, she said.
“We’re down to about 36 percent state share of school funding when it should be 50,” she said.
Three-quarters of the 21 school districts in Montgomery County have less money to spend on instruction today than in 2008, she said.
“I think pensions are really important. I’m not saying we should get rid of pensions, but we need to make sure we’re funding them and we need to make sure we’re funding the kids,” Cooper said. “Right now we’re only funding the pensions, not the kids.”
Public policy decisions that help those who are the most vulnerable are good for everyone, Cooper said.
“Our kids are going to school with kids who are struggling and when they do, our schools are spending time remediating them instead of accelerating every child. Our health care systems are struggling to meet the needs of kids who have missed postnatal appointments, who had bad prenatal care, who had lead exposure, instead of reducing health care costs,” Cooper said. “This is not something that affects only poor children. Every one of these trends affects every one of us. When we solve them, all boats rise.”
O’Connor offered advice for the other human services providers in attendance, including the importance of listening and that each family and community has its own strengths that must be recognized.
“We know that it requires individually-designed services, that no family or individual fits with any particular program,” she said.
Human services workers and community members have to partner together for effective change, she said.
“In order to think outside the box, we need the collective wisdom in this room as well as what’s outside this room,” O’Connor said.
Kline encouraged those in attendance to take the next steps.
“You’ve made the first step today. You’re here,” she said. “You’re becoming more informed. You’re becoming more energized.”
Advocacy, through groups such as The Collaborative Advocacy Network (CAN), is one of the next steps, she said.
“You are the strongest voice that we have here in Montgomery County because you know the stories. You know the face behind each one of those 12,513 children in poverty and you can speak to how that might have happened,” Kline said, “and, more importantly, where we can go from here.”
Following a question and answer period from attendees, the participants broke up into four groups discussing infant mortality, deployed military members who are parents, lead exposure, and pre-school and kindergarten through 12th grade education.