Eastern Iowa youth seeing gains, struggles, new Kids Count report shows

Economic struggles accompanying scholastic gains for local families

Published: December 16 2013 | 8:15 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:54 am in

The past decade has brought ups and downs for Linn County children, a new report shows.

The 2012 Iowa Kids Count report, from the state-level arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation-funded National Kids Count, shows that economic struggles accompanied scholastic gains for local families.

Of Linn County’s 50,775 children aged 17 and younger, 7,007 lived under the federal poverty level in 2011. That 13.8 percent rate is an 81.6 percent increase from 2000, when only 7.6 percent of county youth fell into that same category.

“There still are quite a few families struggling to make ends meet and regain their economic footing,” said Mike Crawford, Iowa Kids Count director.

While the percentage of Iowa children living in poverty in 2011, 17.1 percent, is higher than the Linn County rate, the statewide population has increased only by 58 percent since 2000.

The number of children age 4 and under who get assistance through the Women, Infants and Children Program for low-income families has increased 2.1 percent between 2003 and 2012. Statewide, that number actually has decreased by 5.9 percent.

Christi Regan, Head Start director at the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, said she couldn’t point at what might be causing the poverty upticks for Linn County residents. Head Start provides early childhood education for children from low-income families, and Regan confirmed the program continues to have a waiting list for entrants.

“The economy has had this roller coaster over the last few years that can affect the job aspect,” said Regan, who has been in her role for four years. “Finding that secure job, that stable job, I guess it all goes back to the availability of jobs and what the economy is doing at the time.”

Iowa’s unemployment rate – 5.2 percent in 2012 – rose by 101.8 percent between 2000 and 2012. In Linn County during that same time span, unemployment grew from 1.8 percent to 5.3 percent – a 196.4 percent increase.

More Linn County families took advantage of food assistance in 2012 (12.8 percent) than in 2000 (3.6 percent). Statewide, 13.4 percent of families fell into that category in 2012.

Crawford advocated for the state doing more to extend food and unemployment assistance beyond current limits to help more residents.

“It does not lift people out of poverty, but it does help them through tough times,” he said.

“It provides necessary supports for families that are struggling … . They provide a bridge until a family can find employment.”

The report also holds good news for Linn County. More than half (52.8 percent) of the area’s 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2007-11, 4.9 percent more than in 2000. While the state rate increased by 7.8 percent, it’s still a smaller proportion (48 percent) than in Linn County.

Through the Shared Visions and Statewide Voluntary preschool programs, the state of Iowa does provide limited early childhood education funds for families with 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Crawford said that he’d like to see that funding expanded to reach more children age 3 and even age 2.

“That’s when quite a bit of the brain development is taking place,” he said.

Between 2000 and 2012, Linn County also saw a 31.4 percent drop in births to mothers ages 15 to 19. In 2012, only 2.1 percent of live births were to mothers in that age group.

That number is 2.4 percent statewide, and a 29.5 percent decrease from 2000.

“As a whole, we’re doing well. There’s a small segment of children where we need to increase some supports,” Crawford said. “We are doing things that need to be done. … .

"We know what we need to do. We just need to do more of it.”

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