Area counties with statistically significant increases between 2007 and 2010 in poverty in families of related children ages 5-17
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
WHAT IS POVERTY?
The U.S. Census Bureau measures poverty by comparing total annual income to dollar values -- or thresholds -- that vary by family size, the number of related children and ages. If the family's before-tax income is less than their threshold, the family and its members are in poverty. A similar threshold measurement is used for individuals.
Local educators began to suspect an increase in school-age poverty by watching cafeteria lunch lines. Social workers in aid agencies noticed an uptick in the number of families seeking food and holiday help.
A U.S. Census Bureau report released Tuesday confirmed what those closest to school-age children have been seeing -- poverty levels among those ages 5 to 17 are increasing.
For school-age children, 1,862 of the nation's 3,142 counties had poverty rates higher than the 19.8 percent national average last year. In the Chattanooga area, 21 out of 22 counties are included on that list.
Of those local counties, eight are listed among the more than 600 that have had statistically significant increases in school-age poverty between 2007-10.
Dade County, Ga., is one of them.
Dade County School Superintendent Shawn Tobin said the numbers confirmed what his staff already knew -- the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch is up. So is attendance, he said, because students know they'll get at least two daily meals at school.
"It hits rural areas hard," he said. "We're using all available resources. Sometimes they're for basic needs. I find that we're spending more time as well calling Lions Club for glasses. "
In addition to jackets, bookbags and sacks of food that churches provide to students to take home for the weekends, the schools are providing information, Tobin said, including answers to questions about where to find medical care and how to get help with the bills.
In Catoosa County, which also has seen a three-year spike in school-age poverty, has been tapping its children's fund to help local families. School employees and local businesses have been contributing to the fund for more than 10 years.
"If [families are] about to be evicted or they're having real hardship situations, they can call us," said Marissa Brower, Catoosa schools spokeswoman. "The fund helps with electric bills, water, clothing, food and children's medication so that the children, our students, don't have the stress of their family being evicted or something like that."
The fund has been dipped into more often in recent years, Brower said.
Hamilton County also is on the Census Bureau's three-year poverty list.
"These are hard times and I don't think any of us are in denial about that," County Mayor Jim Coppinger said. "Obviously we're disappointed. I think a lot of it is driven by the recession."
The Samaritan Center, which operates within Hamilton County, has been handling extra cases this year, said Sharon Smith-Hensley, social services director at the center.
"Our numbers are going up. We're getting new clients in that we've never seen before," Smith-Hensley said. "We're getting the newly marginalized client. They've never been in this situation before."
Rick Mathis, interim CEO of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, said the South is suffering from both decreases in median income and higher rates of poverty.
"In this region, the comparatively high increase in the number of school-age children in poverty within Hamilton, Bradley and Catoosa counties is particularly troubling," Mathis said.