Columbia Agencies Look to Break Cycle of Poverty

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BOONE COUNTY - Some Columbia community organizations are banding together to intervene in the lives of youth and break a cycle of increasing poverty. 

The latest census numbers show poverty is a prevalent problem in Mid-Missouri and affects one out of every five Columbians. 

From 2000 to 2010, Boone County's population grew twenty percent. In that same decade, the number of kids living in poverty in and around Columbia jumped 49 percent.

Some local agencies like the United Way strive to make poor children and their families a priority when they make budget decisions. The United Way told KOMU 8 News it makes youth a priority because of numerous research studies that show communities are more likely to make a positive impact on the lives of the poor if they invest in underprivileged youth at an early age. 

At the Blind Boone Center, free summer camp programs offer a guaranteed lunch. Kids are allowed to eat as much as they want, and they can take home anything others do not want.

Veronica Martinez works with dozens of children each weekday at the summer camps.

"A lot of them come out of single parent homes. Their mom is at work, or their dad," Martinez said. "It's free, they know they're safe and out of harms way. They know they're going to get a good snack, a good meal at least, and education behind it most of all."

Organizers said the summer camps offer educational programming because the research finds that when kids from poor communities "plug in" to education, they have a much higher chance of learning skills that can help them rise above the conditions 

The U.S. Census Bureau, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual "Kids Count" report and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's National Child Well-Being report all show early childhood education is heavily correlated with reduced poverty rates, reduced teen pregnancy, reduced substance abuse and lower drop-out rates. 

Cathy Cox, a Benton Elementary School home school coordinator said, "What's sad is a lot of kids who come from poorer families, a lot of times don't learn how to not be poor. The life skills are very different. They learn manipulation, how to ask, how to beg, how to barrow. It's how to do whatever you can, under the table."

School districts often use the number of students who qualify for free and reduced as a benchmark for figuring out how many kids are living at or near the poverty line. The most recent numbers show 38 percent of kids in the Columbia School District qualify and 80 percent of the students at Benton Elementary do. At Core, an alternative school, 77 percent of students qualify. At West Boulevard Elementary, 73 percent of students qualify. Further, more than 60 percent of students at Alpha Hart, Blue Ridge, Field and Parkade Elementaries qualify and so 60 percent of the students at Douglas High School, the district's alternative high school. 

Standardized test scores are an important indicator of academic performance. In Columbia, students receiving free or reduced lunches do not perform as well as the students whose bellies are more likely to be full. 

"We've failed our families for looking ahead to the future and beyond right now," Cox said.

Organizations like the United Way and Missouri Community Action are pumping money and resources into intervening early on behalf of kids living in poverty, all in hope of starting to turn poverty numbers around.

The organizations note that if kids can hang on in the end, some of them will have a better shot at getting out of poverty in their lifetime. According to the Missouri Housing Authority, every ten dollars committed to early childhood education leads to seventy dollars in future economic benefit.