Poverty in North Carolina
Next week, members of the State Board of Education will meet to discuss our direction for the coming year. With a new curriculum, new tests and a new school accountability model, I am certain there will be much conversation about change, transition and the type of policies needed to guide our schools through this new era for public education. In addition to all of these changes, we must remember that teachers in classrooms across the state also are confronting familiar daily challenge – children living in poverty.
One in four children in North Carolina lives below the poverty line, which is set at a family of four living off of less than $23,021 a year. In addition, 11.5 percent of children in our state live in “deep” poverty (with families surviving off of $11,100 or less a year). For these students who do not know when they will eat their next meal, news lessons to learn and tests to take are insignificant in the grand scheme of their fight for survival.
There is no question that children who grow up in poverty face many challenges. Research shows that children who are poor have a 50/50 shot at escaping poverty as adults. Those are tough odds to beat, especially when more children are denied access to a quality pre-k education program, extra-curricular opportunities and need-based scholarships. If changes are not made, these odds are not going to play out well for our children or our state.
Some believe that this type of poverty does not exist in North Carolina but hunger statistics paint a clear picture. Demand has more than doubled over the past four years at the 475 food pantries in the 34 counties that make up the service area for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern N.C. In addition, 1.4 million North Carolinians report having to skip meals to make ends meet. This level of poverty has a direct, immediate impact on a child’s ability to succeed in school every single day.
It is true that the State Board of Education, members of the General Assembly, superintendents, principals and teachers are not going to be able to eradicate poverty in our state. But we can make more of an effort to educate ourselves about this issue and poverty statistics in our communities. The “Map the Meal Gap” map available on the Feeding America website here http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-studies/map-the-meal-gap.aspx is a good resource for a county-by-county breakdown of food insecurity statistics in states across the country.
So what else do we do? We must all agree that poverty is an issue that we need to consider as we discuss and debate all policies that affect public schools. For example, small decisions made by a local school district can impact the amount of federal dollars they receive from the National School Lunch Program to provide low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. This is a perfect example of how being informed can make a big difference for students.
If our goal is to prepare EVERY student for college and a career, we need to do a better job understanding and considering the unique needs of EVERY student, including the children living in poverty. When we can commit to working together to raise awareness about this issue, we will be better prepared to address the challenges poverty presents for schools and students and we will be able to use our knowledge and resources to make sure every student gets a fair shot at a bright future.