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Commentary - Fight poverty; invest in children

By Jessica Boyer, community impact director, United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties Poverty is a problem that must be addressed as the gap between the "haves and have nots" grows daily. Increases in gas prices and health insurance have had an im...

By Jessica Boyer, community impact director, United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties

Poverty is a problem that must be addressed as the gap between the "haves and have nots" grows daily. Increases in gas prices and health insurance have had an impact on everyone, but for those families barely meeting their most basic needs, these increases have devastating consequences.

January is National Poverty Awareness Month and Americans are urged to focus their attention on poverty in the United States. In spite of the seemingly limitless prosperity and comfort that many Americans enjoy, 35 million Americans are living below the government-defined poverty level. These individuals are going hungry, foregoing medical care, doing without winter coats and gloves, and struggling to break free from poverty.

Children and youth are also deeply impacted by the effects of poverty. Approximately 3,000 residents in our service area are currently living below poverty level. One in 10 local children live in poverty; this is not taking into consideration the additional population that does not fall within the federal poverty guidelines but struggles to meet their basic needs.

Locally the basic needs income for our region is double the Federal Poverty Guidelines of $20,000, indicating there are more families struggling daily to meet their basic needs than many poverty figures indicate. The working poor are oftentimes forgotten, as they are not seen as "living in poverty." They just miss qualifying for assistance and even as they try to get ahead they cannot meet their most basic needs.

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This results in many of our local children not being afforded the same opportunities as their peers. We need to recognize the diversity of our community and strive to provide all children with increased access to opportunities and experiences. Almost 50 percent of Minnesota kindergarten-age children are not ready to start kindergarten. These children are lacking developmentally-appropriate language and literacy skills. Low-income children are typically another one to two years behind and oftentimes never catch-up. Research shows that of 50 children who are having trouble learning to read in kindergarten, 44 will still have trouble in 3rd grade - and children without reading skills by 3rd grade are unlikely to graduate.

Investing in our children and youth will have a positive impact on the community for years to come. Investing $1 in a child's success early on saves $17 down the road with results measured in lower crime, fewer single parents, and higher individual earnings and educational levels. Early learning is the foundation for a strong, competitive economy. According to the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, early learning can generate a 12 percent public rate of return. So by supporting investments in young children, together as a community we can start to make significant changes that will have positive, long-lasting impacts on the community we are so proud of.

For more information on local programs that address the ever increasing needs of our children and youth, contact Amy Reineke at 320-886-9412 or visit Douglas County's Early Childhood Initiative Web site at http://www.buildingconnectionseci.org .

    This information was submitted on behalf of Douglas County's Early Childhood Initiative-Building Connections.

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