Despite low unemployment rates and other positive economic signs, childhood poverty is on the rise in Wisconsin, and the Chippewa Valley is not immune.
The share of Wisconsin children living in poverty rose 20 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to a report issued last summer by the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW-Madison.
Another study – this one from the United Way – determined that the growing share of Wisconsinites struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, and child care. In Eau Claire County, 42 percent of residents live below the so-called ALICE threshold. (ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.) That’s higher than the statewide figure of 37.5 percent. A large share of these were families with children.
Whatever measure you use, the conclusion is troubling, but there is cause for hope: An Eau Claire-based organization is part of an ambitious statewide effort to cut childhood poverty in half in Wisconsin by 2030.
JONAH – an acronym for Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope – is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, faith-based organization focused on addressing poverty and injustice in the Chippewa Valley. Its parent organization, WISDOM, and three other statewide groups – Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Kids Forward, and the Wisconsin Council of Churches – are engaged in a multi-year campaign called End Child Poverty Wisconsin.
The campaigns goals are simple but bold, explains JONAH task force leader John Wagner: Reducing childhood poverty by 50 percent in the coming decade, reducing the racial disparity in poverty (children of color are more likely to be poor than white children), and establishing methods of measuring progress on these fronts.
Moving the needle on poverty will take a concerted effort, which is why the End Child Poverty Wisconsin coalition is engaged in a grassroots campaign that involves education (including an upcoming presentation in Eau Claire), a petition (with a goal of 10,000 signatures), and political efforts (JONAH and similar organizations will visit the state Capitol on March 26 to talk to lawmakers). Other efforts are underway as well: For instance, the Eau Claire County Board was scheduled to consider a resolution at its March 5 meeting that would support the anti-poverty effort.
Ultimately, addressing childhood poverty through passing laws that would, for example, help adults find better-paying jobs and increase funding for early-stage education, will take political will and a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty.
“There’s a general tendency out there that people don’t mind living in poverty,” Wagner said. This simply isn’t true, he explained, and such stereotypes ignore the fact that people living in poverty often find their ability to make long-term decisions constrained.
As a study published last year in the North Carolina Medical Journal stated, “Poverty acts as a reinforcing mechanism, disproportionately burdening low-income families with stressors that give rise to adverse conditions, which then convey additional stress and cognitive dysfunction. The devastating effect of this negative feedback loop on the development of children is well documented.”
Wagner is passionate about highlighting the role adverse childhood experiences – or ACEs – play in poverty. ACEs are often symptoms of poverty, and they also frequently lead to its perpetuation across generations. They include emotional and physical abuse; mental illness or substance abuse in the home; parental separation or divorce; and physical or emotional neglect. According to one by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who experienced four or more ACEs during their childhoods were 35 to 50 percent more likely of being either incarcerated or diagnosed as mentally ill as adults.
“The cost to society of that is huge,” Wagner said. By one 2013 estimate, each year youth poverty in the U.S. leads to $500 billion in reduced economic activity and additional health care and criminal justice costs.
To learn more about efforts to fight childhood poverty in Wisconsin, attend a presentation by JONAH at 6pm on Thursday, March 28, at Spirit Lutheran Church, 1310 Main St., Eau Claire. You can also visit the statewide website at endchildpovertywi.org.