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Public health, poverty intertwined
But, new partnerships helping battle generational crisis
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Kansas kids of color and immigrant children face persistent inequities



TOPEKA —  While recent numbers have shown a decrease in child poverty rates in Kansas overall, children of color remain less likely than white children to live in higher income neighborhoods where poverty rates are low, according to the 2017 Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. These findings reinforce that now is the time to fully fund and support programs and policies that will decrease or eliminate racial disparities, and help every Kansas child grow up to be a healthy, thriving adult.

More than three in four Kansas children (77 percent) live in low-poverty areas, yet only 53 percent of Latino and 51 percent of African-American children live in low-poverty areas. Low-poverty areas are defined as neighborhoods where less than 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. In addition, 59 percent of Kansas children living in immigrant families live in low-poverty areas compared to 81 percent of the state’s children living in U.S.-born families.

“Children of color and those from immigrant families in the United States often face significant barriers to their stability and highly stressful experiences, like living in concentrated poverty, that disrupt their healthy development,” said John Wilson, Vice President of Advocacy at Kansas Action for Children. “Data suggest that opportunities are not distributed equitably, therefore we must explore what structural barriers may be contributing to the disparity in outcomes we’re seeing.”

This is the second Race for Results report by the Casey Foundation; the Foundation released the first report in 2014. The report measures children’s progress on the national and state levels on key education, health and economic milestones by racial and ethnic groups. The report’s index uses a composite score of these milestones on a scale of one (lowest) to 1,000 (highest). In Kansas, Asian and Pacific Islander children have the highest index score at 778. This group is followed by white children at 710 and American Indian at 612. Scores for Latino (427) and African-American (395) children are considerably lower.

 In Shelly Schneider’s four years as Barton County health director, three things have become abundantly clear to her. 

First, “we kind of have our hands in everything,” she said of the Health Department in giving her annual update to the Barton County Commission Monday morning. 

“My view, and  my staff’s view, is that our office, the Barton County Health Department, is a safety net,” she said. “If there’s something that’s not being covered in our community, we need to cover until some can be mobilized to cover that issue moving forward.”

Second, “you asked me to look at the root cause of all of this, and I truly believe its poverty,” she said. “It’s poverty, it’s hopelessness and its helplessness and that that’s the root of what we need to try to fix.”

Lastly, when she started, state health officials made the comment that problems related to health were “siloed.” “I didn’t understand what ‘siloed’ meant.”

Now, four years later, she gets it. Those tackling the various health-related issues, from public health to family planning, were working independent of on another, in their own “silos.”

“Nobody ever talked to each other,” Schneider said.

The battle against poverty

Her light bulb moment came last September at an educators’ conference sponsored by the Hutchinson-based Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas (ESSDACK). “I looked around and I was the only public health person there,” she said.

This was odd, because “everything they were talking about dealt with population health,” she said. “This is huge.”

After the conference, she spoke with Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson. And since then, she has reached out to him and with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“We have got to start figuring out to get at each other’s tables,” Schneider said. “Poverty is happening and it is affecting the kids when they come to school.”

Many of these children are in a crisis. They don’t have enough food to eat, their electricity and/or water has been turned off, their moms and dads may be in jail, or maybe the family car won’t start.

“The list goes on and on she said. “Then we expect them to sit in school for eight hours and learn. It’s just not happening. All those people we’re leaving behind, we’ve got to figure out how to help.”

That’s her new mission. “We need to look at the poor and see what’s causing the problem.”

Schneider referenced the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual county health rankings. Barton County consistently has a higher rate of people living in poverty, higher number of kids in foster care and a higher number of children living in one-parent households. 

“We know all this exists,” she said. “We can try to put Band-Aids on the top half or we can start rolling up our sleeves and seeing how can we fix this.”

A joint effort

As part of this new-found cooperation, the Health Department has partnered with ESSDACK, Barton County Community Corrections, Youth Corps of Greensburg and the local First United Methodist Church to bring Circles to Central Kansas to Great Bend. 

“It’s a way for people to get out of poverty, in a nutshell,” she said. “It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.”

Handouts are just bandages, she said. When people visit the Food Bank or Emergency Aid every month, “we’re not getting better.”

This is an 18-week program for impoverished participants where goals are set to wean them off of such services and get them on their own two feet, she said. But, “we know 18 weeks is not enough to fight poverty.”

After this, it's a two- to five-year commitment for volunteer partners who will meet weekly to talk and make connections to try and snuff out generational poverty. “We want to erase it so it’s not our kids learning the same things,” she said. 

“The Circles group is truly mind-boggling,” Schneider said. She has sat in on meetings over the first six weeks and has seen progress in those taking part. “Their kids are seeing that as well.”

Circuit breakers

In addition, the continued bombardment of crisis after crisis affects the frontal lobe of the brain and can impair impulse control and decision making leading to substance abuse and other problems, Schneider said. “We’re having kids with rewired brains.”

She said school districts are starting to implement trauma-informed care, the practice of considering the impact of negative events on children when working with them. It is directed by an understanding of the neurological, biological, psychological and social effects of trauma.

Schneider said this is something that is exciting and will also end the cycle of poverty.