Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daniel Thompson

Poverty becoming a major issue for Nebraska families


When the subject of poverty comes up in conversation throughout the state of Nebraska, there is seemingly a misconception that surrounds how residents of the state perceive it. More often than not, there is a common belief that poverty is strictly contained within the rural areas such as the Nebraska Panhandle.

However, the 2014 Kids Count report, which ranks states based on 16 indicators including educational, social, economic and physical well-being of children using data on local, state and national levels, shows that poverty is pervasive throughout the entirety of the state and isn’t confined to any one specific area, according to Chrissy Tonkinson, Research Coordinator for Voices of Children in Nebraska.

“It’s everywhere. We have a county map of percent of children living in poverty, and it’s really every single corner of the state that has a larger county with a population of poverty and smaller counties with less poverty. I think the Panhandle is a pretty big concentration, but it really is all over the state,” Tonkinson said.

According to the report, the percent of children living in poverty has increased from 15 percent in 2009 to 18 percent in 2012, which is the last year with data analyzed. Also, 22 percent, or approximately 104,000 children, live in homes where the parents lack secure employment, up three percent from 2008, and this is coupled with 26 percent of Nebraska’s children, 122,000, which were living in households with a high housing cost burden which has risen by two percent since 2005.

Though Nebraska is still doing better than the national averages, which have a 23 percent for children living in poverty in 2012 with 31 percent of children whose parents lack secure employment, Tonkinson points out that it is a growing area of concern as the percentages continue to rise each year.

“It’s been growing pretty steadily over the last nine years, and maybe even longer than that. We have 81,000 children in Nebraska living in poverty, and that’s 18 percent of all of our kids,” Tonkinson said. “As for increases in poverty, I would just really relate it to: A, the recession, and b, our wages are not increasing with inflation. We’re not earning more money every year with the value of the dollar increasing. And our wages are just not keeping up.”

The Voices of Children in Nebraska also points out the effect that requirements of public assistance programs have on poverty with some families in the state through the “cliff effect” in their “Family Bottom Line” report, which states how much a family actually needs to make in order to be economically stable.

“With the cliff effect, what that is kind of referencing is public assistance benefits. So you may qualify for a benefit when you’re at a certain income, and if the family of parent gets a small raise in their income, they lose a pretty big public assistance benefit like child care which is a huge family expense and if you lose that, the raise may not even be worthwhile. So once you lose that public assistance you’re actually ending up being more poor than you were beforehand,” Tonkinson said.

For example, in the report, it states that for a family of two adults, an infant and a preschooler to be financially stable in a non-metro rural county, they would need to make $39,313.77 per year with both parents working full-time. This is only slightly lower than what would be required of the same family in a non-metro urban county which would come at a necessary annual intake of $40,959.85.

However, if both parents were working 40 hours a week while earning minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, they would only earn $30,160.00 per year including taxes. While this figure rises approximately $7,110 above the federal poverty line, it is still insufficient, according to Voices of Children in Nebraska, when taking into account the “cliff effect”, which would disqualify families from adult Medicaid, child care, and SNAP programs which would be a great financial detriment and would force residents in such a position to even deny themselves a raise at their job in order to keep the much-needed benefits.

Tonkinson believes that the true solution to the current trend of the increase in poverty is increasing the minimum wage.

“The biggest thing right now is just the increase in minimum wage. We know right now that the $7.25 an hour is not enough to make ends meet. A family of four needs about $36,000 a year to pay all their bills and just be completely economically self-sufficient. But that family of four with both parents working full-time at minimum wage can only earn about $30,000 a year. That’s a $6,000 annual discrepancy. But bumping up the minimum wage $9 an hour would meet that $36,000 required a year,” Tonkinson said.

Though the report highlighted the increase in poverty as an area for concern, it also points out that the state of Nebraska is actually improving in the area of education. In the education indicators, Nebraska has improved 7 percent in the number of children who are not attending preschool, dropping from 59 percent through 2005 to 2007 to 52 percent in 2012. Reading proficiency has also improved with the percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading decreasing to 63 percent in 2013 from 66 percent in 2005. The number of eighth graders not proficient in math has also decreased from 65 percent in 2005 to 64 percent in 2013. The state of Nebraska is also graduating more kids on time than in 2005 and 2006 with only 7 percent of high school students not graduating on time as opposed to 13 percent.

There have also been great improvements in the health indicators, according to Tonkinson.

“We’ve gotten better over the last decade in every single health indicator in the report: fewer low birth weight babies, more kids with health insurance, fewer teens who abuse drugs or alcohol and fewer child or teen deaths. Nebraska’s still a great place to be a kid, and we’re moving in the right direction in several indicators. There’s just a few that we’d like to work, and I think we all want to get better and be the best place in the country,” Tonkinson said.

Tonkinson also speculates that the increase in high school graduates and other education indicators could serve in the future to alleviate some of the issues pertaining to the increase in poverty through parents achieving a higher level of education and a greater level of financial stability.

“More kids are graduating from college now than ever before, and that’s a great way to start a family and make sure that your family is economically stable and successful. But we hope that as long as these education indicators keep going up, that our poverty rate will hopefully go down and people stay in Nebraska once they do get some education,” Tonkinson said.

Overall, Tonkinson states that Nebraska, which ranked 10th overall throughout the nation concerning the well-being of children, is still doing very well with continuing to excel in some of the indicators and showing growth and improvement from year to year.

“Our ranking fell a little bit this year, but I don’t think we’re actually getting that much worse. I just think other states are getting better faster. Tenth place in the country to be a kid, that’s great. We generally do pretty great. I think there’s only two indicators where we do score worse than the national average, and those are child and teen death and teens who abuse drugs or alcohol,” Tonkinson said.

However, even in these areas, Nebraska is showing improvement with teen deaths dropping per 100,000 dropping from 34 in 2005 to 27 in 2010 and alcohol or drug abuse dropping from 9 percent in 2005 and 2006 to 7 percent in 2011 and 2012.

“It is getting better now. We improved in both of those indicators, and I mean, it’s a very small number of kids. It’s something we need to be concerned about, but it’s a small number of kids,” Tonkinson said.

Anyone interested in seeing the full data from the Kids Count 2014 report can do so by visiting http://www.datacenter.kidscount.org.


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