Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development.
A child in poverty may be unsure when he will eat his next meal, may be taken out of school because his family is behind on the rent, or may be staying with negligent babysitters or by themselves because a parent can't afford quality child care. Those and other effects of poverty increase the chances of a child suffering academically, physically and mentally, according to the National Center on Child Poverty.
Twenty-two percent, or 333,036 Hoosier children, live in poor families, compared with 21 percent nationwide, and 126,263, or 26 percent, of those children are under age 6.
In 2015, the federal poverty threshold was set at $24,036 for a family of four with two children, but poverty is measured by an outdated standard developed in the 1960s, according to the Child Poverty Center. Studies have shown that, on average, families need an income of about twice the federal poverty threshold to meet basic needs.
Children born into or living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to factors that can impair brain development, which can lead to poor cognitive, health and academic outcomes, as well as higher rates of risky health-related behaviors among adolescents, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Risks are greatest for infants and young children who experience deep and persistent poverty.
Local child advocates are working to educate parents, children and teens and provide resources for those living in poverty, hoping to decrease those dismal statistics.
Against the odds
Joe Jordan has spent the last 25 years offering guidance and help to underserved children and families. Jordan is CEO and president of the Boys and Girls Club of Fort Wayne and was named this year's State of Indiana Professional of the Year by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
The agency offers area children daytime shelter with activities and programs focusing on academic success, good character and citizenship and healthy lifestyles.
“The stress level for children in poverty is incredible,” Jordan said. “If a child sees mom and dad struggling, stress levels increase and it's tough to focus on learning or academics. And, if there's no food in their bellies, it's hard to concentrate, to focus, to succeed.”
Born and raised in Fort Wayne, the youngest of 10 children, Jordan remembers there was never enough money or resources. That did not stop six of the Jordan children from getting college degrees or all 10 becoming productive and outstanding individuals, he said.
“We had great parents and a great community that wrapped its arms around us and took care of us,” Jordan said, adding that today, for many kids, that sense of community is absent.
The Boys and Girls Clubs has become the community for thousands of children – 3,000 last year alone. There, the kids have resources, healthy food and positive role models and mentors.
Membership is for children between the ages of 6 and 18, but the agency also hosts educational classes for the parents of infants and preschoolers. “We put a heavy emphasis on parents reading to their babies and young children,” Jordan said.
Children from Fort Wayne Community and East Allen County schools ride the bus after school daily to the agency, which is open 3-7:30 p.m. Members are expected to spend an hour on academics such as homework, reading or writing activities, or games that develop cognitive skills. Tutors are available, and children receive an average of 42 hours of tutoring each year. Heavy emphasis is placed on science, technology, engineering and math, but activities include orchestra and art clubs, sports, leadership and citizenship programs, college and career preparation and field trips.
The center is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the summer and offers the same types of programs along with two hot, nutritious meals and snacks. Although parents must transport their children to and from the center when there is no school, the only charge is an annual fee of $15 per child. Families with three or more kids pay only $35 per year.
The average annual rate for licensed child care in Indiana for a young child is nearly $6,500 and more than $5,300 for home-based child care, according to Child Care Aware, a national advocacy group that works to ensure that families have access to high-quality, affordable child care.
The Boys and Girls Clubs is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign and will soon tear down the building at 2609 Fairfield Ave. and construct a new center at that site.
Club members tend to disappear when they become teens, and about 80 percent of the members are age 12 and under, which is why the second floor will be devoted exclusively to teens and their academic and career development.
As a testament to the club's success, 94 percent of members are at an appropriate grade level for their age and 99 percent of teen members are expected to graduate high school.
Making a difference
Jordan has witnessed many success stories, but two stand out in his mind.
An 11-year-old boy became known at the agency as the bumper pool king. “He could beat anyone he played against, young or old. He never missed a beat,” Jordan said.
Intrigued, Jordan learned the boy had been in foster homes his entire life and literally grown up at the center.
“He graduated from high school and is now at Ivy Tech and doing quite well,” Jordan said proudly.
In another instance, Jordan made a deal with a teenage girl who was an eight-year club member. She impressed him with her cheerful, friendly personality. If she made straight As at school, Jordan told her, he would buy her whatever she wanted, within reason. She did, and Jordan bought her the requested $200 athletic shoes.
Some time later, just before Christmas, the girl knocked on his door, obviously distraught.
The girl confided that she and her younger brother – also a club regular – were about to be taken out of their home by Child Protective Services. They had not had water, gas or electricity in their home for 16 months, she said. While they would be allowed to live with their grandfather, his home was some distance from the Boys and Girls Club.
“I've got to come to the Boys and Girls Club,” she told Jordan. “You are our family.”
Jordan was shocked.
“Because she was always so cheerful and had no trouble getting all As, I assumed everything was OK at home,” he said. “And, with all of these conditions in her life, her main concern was getting to the club. I had to fight back tears.”
Since their home was an unhealthy environment, Jordan told her it was in her and her brother's best interest to go live with their grandfather until the situation was reconciled. He then promised to personally transport the kids to and from the center while they stayed with their grandfather.
“She smiled and lit up like a Christmas tree,” he said.
Good nutrition = healthy kids
Low incomes and lack of stability are not the only challenges for youth.
The prevalence of obesity among children 6 to 11 years old has more than doubled in the past 20 years and among adolescents ages 12 to 19 more than tripled, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Studies show that up to 80 percent of health problems can be prevented with proper nutrition,” said Kathy Wehrle, a dietitian for the Simple Solutions community outreach program at Parkview Health. “The typical American diet of fast food, processed food and sugary beverages is wreaking havoc on our youth. They are pre-destined for obesity.”
Other conditions associated with poor nutrition include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, joint problems, and poor health overall. Poor nutrition may follow them well into adulthood, where they are more likely to develop heart disease, caused by high blood cholesterol levels, and osteoporosis, caused by calcium deficiency. The effects of poor nutrition are far-reaching, encompassing more than obesity. A child who eats poorly over time is at risk for a number of chronic conditions including diabetes, kidney stones, bone loss, cancer and heart disease, according to the CDC.
Type 2 diabetes, formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, has become increasingly prevalent among children and adolescents as rates of being overweight and obesity rise. A CDC study estimated one in three American children born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Outreach programs like Wehrle's help at-risk families learn how to acquire and maintain health benefits through diet with hands-on demonstrations that include cooking lessons, shopping tips, planting community gardens and learning simple recipes.
Wehrle has worked at Parkview Health for 26 years as a nutrition educator, including 10 in the community outreach program. She also works with clients through Access to Healthy Food or HEAL, day care health enhancement through Planting Healthy Seeds ECE, healthy living skill classes and restaurant initiatives.
The programs reach underserved areas where the focus is on proper nutrition, maternal and infant health and mental well-being.
Cyndi DeCook of Huntertown wrote to HEAL instructors after completing the course, admitting she took the class because it was free. But DeCook also wrote that she was amazed at how her newly acquired knowledge resulted in positive improvements in her family's health.
“Using fresh herbs amazed me,” DeCook wrote. “The flavors we were taught to incorporate into these easy-to-prepare dishes proved to me that I could live without adding salt to every dish.”
DeCook also said her blood pressure “is finally under control.”
Cooking up healthy families
Even before a baby is born, what the mother eats can set the stage for a child's future problems, Wehrle said. Studies have shown if an infant receives good nutrition in the womb and from birth to 3 months, that child is less likely to have health issues and will exhibit more readiness to learn, she said.
“Lots of parents do not realize the benefits of planning a meal or that all meals do not have to be frozen or in a bag,” Wehrle said. Some families did not even have a dining table or had one but never used it, she said.
“Once families learn to cook a meal, it gives them hope and their family becomes more cohesive, coming together at the dinner table,” Wehrle said.
“Some people may have had one class in home economics in high school, but might not have finished high school. Their parents may not have cooked for them, so they are products of society,” Wehrle said.
People are usually thrilled to learn they can help their children through proper nutrition, and the children are thrilled to learn how to try new fruits and vegetables and shop for nutritious food, she said.
“We can help people break down the barriers of poverty through proper nutrition,” Wehrle said. “The kids get more confident about their food choices, going to the farmers markets and grocery stores and pointing out the more nutritious foods to their parents. “
The good news is that education and outreach programs like Wehrle's are working.
The CDC reported that 20 percent of today's high schoolers drink one or more sodas daily, down from almost 30 percent in 2011.
Locally, Wehrle's program has seen a documented increase in produce consumption and less chronic disease risk among participants.
“Children who are fed properly have improved health, are more active, sleep better and are more attentive and mindful,” she said.
Children on the Edge
• There are nearly 72 million children under age 18 years in the United States – 43 percent, or 30.6 million, live in low-income families while 21 percent or 14.8 million, live in poor families
• In Indiana, 323,000 children – or 21 percent – lived in poverty in 2015, down slightly from 22 percent in 2010.
• Indiana ranked 35th in the nation in a 2017 state-to-state comparison of the overall health of residents and 28th in overall child well-being
• In Indiana, 26 percent of children in poor families moved in the last year, compared with 12 percent of children in non-poor families
• In Indiana, 399,000 children – or 25 percent – lived in households with a high-housing cost burden in 2015, down from 32 percent in 2010.
• 1.2 million U.S. teens, including 23,000 in Indiana, are not in school and not working; more than 4.3 million young children are not in school
Sources: 2016 Trust for America's Health report; U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Atlas; Annie E. Casey Foundation, including 2017 Kids Count Profile; National Center for Children in Poverty