Child poverty rate has been rising for years
The worse news is that the county's 2009 child-poverty rate—the second-highest in Wisconsin—does not reflect this year's continuing economic fallout.
As part of its American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 20.2 percent of Rock County kids under 18 were living below the poverty level. Rock County's rate is second only to Milwaukee County, where the child-poverty rate was nearly 30 percent.
The number of local children living in poverty has increased in recent years, but at nowhere near the level between 2008 and 2009.
"We're certainly seeing it," said Ann Forbeck, the Janesville School District's homeless education coordinator. "We've had a lot more requests for assistance such as clothing and school supplies, plus we've had more people asking for bus tokens so they can get to school."
More students are coming to class hungry, without a good night's sleep and distracted by the overall stress of poverty, she said.
For the 2009-10 school year, 43 percent of the district's 10,000-plus students received a free or reduced-price lunch. The district had 381 homeless students, a 6 percent increase over the previous school year.
The effects of poverty are showing up in the local district's state test scores, Forbeck said. On last year's reading tests, 74 percent of the students receiving free or reduced-price lunches reached the proficient or advanced level. That compares to 89 percent among students not receiving meal aid.
The difference between the two groups on the state's math test was even wider.
"That's a significant gap," Forbeck said. "Poverty really does impact test scores."
While Forbeck looks at hard numbers, the Census Bureau's population numbers can be somewhat deceiving and open to interpretation. They're estimates taken from a relatively small survey sample, and they carry a significant margin of error.
In Rock County, for example, the bureau estimated that 7,726 children were living in poverty in 2009 for a poverty rate of 20.2 percent. But when the bureau's margins of error are factored in, the rate could be as low as 13.9 percent or as high as 26.8 percent.
"Even if it's on the low side at 13 percent, one out of 10 kids living in poverty is still too many for a community this size," said Marc Perry, director of planning and community development for Community Action, a not-for-profit organization that operates a spectrum of community programs to prevent and reduce poverty in Rock and Walworth counties.
Perry said the recent spike in child poverty is an extension of economic problems that started in Rock County in 2007.
The problem, he said, was exacerbated by the downfall of the local auto industry.
"I don't think you can attribute it all to the closure of the GM plant," Perry said. "This started before the plant closed, but that certainly caused a trickle down through the local economy.
"The problem is that people can't find jobs. We've got the highest unemployment rate in the state in Beloit and the seventh-highest in Janesville."
Overall, Rock County's unemployment rate of 10.2 percent was the highest in the state in August.
Perry said the community is attacking poverty and joblessness on two levels.
"We've got situational poverty, where people lost jobs in the economic downturn, and then we've got generational poverty, those lower-income people who are always struggling," he said.
"I think we're doing a good job retraining those on the situational side, as well as putting an emphasis on basic skills training for the lower-wage workers.
"We're making those adjustments, but the bottom line is that the jobs have to come."
In a tight job market, Perry said, employers are much more likely to hire someone who has an employment track record, particularly if it's long-term and at one or two employers. That continues to leave the lower-skilled candidates without a job and below the poverty line.
"Nobody ever got out of poverty without a job," Perry said.
Forbeck said the school district is working with church and community groups to collect clothing donations for students in need. School social workers are planning fundraisers to buy bus tokens so kids can get to and from school.
"Our kids in poverty, especially generational poverty, really need role models," she said. "One-on-one mentors can really make a big difference."
Forbeck suggested that anyone interested in mentoring get involved with the district's middle school Connections program or volunteer for the Big Brothers Big Sisters Lunch Buddies program at the elementary schools.
Perry said emergency homeless shelters, housing programs and food pantries are working hard to help impoverished families and their children.
But he, too, is concerned that this year's poverty numbers could be higher than last year's.
"It's anecdotal, but the stocks at the area food pantries are low, and the demand is up," he said. "That's never a good sign.
"If it's true that the recession is over, we don't know it yet."
To learn more
For more information on homelessness and poverty in the Janesville School District, call Ann Forbeck at (608) 743-6490.