Monday, October 1, 2012

By Bill StanczykiewiczPresident and CEO of Indiana Youth Institute

Child poverty in Indiana is up, but so is opportunity for low-income high school students in a successful statewide program. More opportunity today can mean less poverty in the future.

According to new federal data, 23 percent of Indiana children are poor, a 38 percent increase since 2005.

Indiana’s child poverty rate now exceeds the national average, and a big reason is the Great Recession. Research from Northwestern University reveals that for every one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate, poverty increases by .5 percent. Thus, poverty has increased significantly as Indiana’s unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent in 2007 to today’s elevated rate above 8 percent.

Education also matters. People with higher levels of education, especially a postsecondary degree or credential, enjoy higher wages and lower levels of unemployment. National data reveal that the unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree is less than 5 percent, and the average wage for this cohort is $55,000.

For people who have dropped out of high school, the unemployment rate tops 15 percent with wages averaging $23,000.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs are available. Since January of 2010, 1.8 million jobs have been created requiring a postsecondary degree or credential, while 128,000 jobs have been lost requiring a high school diploma or less – a swing of nearly two million jobs.

Ivy Tech Community College estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 manufacturing jobs in Indiana currently are unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants with training certificates, credentials or associate degrees that require just six months to two years of additional education after high school.

Another factor associated with poverty is family structure. Children in single-parent families are five times more likely to live in poverty, and the increase in Indiana’s child poverty rate has coincided with an increase in the state’s nonmarital birth rate which has risen from 35 percent in 2000 to 44 percent in 2009.

In, “Creating an Opportunity Society,” Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill examine the combined influence of education, employment and family structure on poverty. Sawhill is a Democrat who worked in the White House for Bill Clinton at the same time that Haskins, a Republican, was working in the Congress for Newt Gingrich. Now they both work at the Brookings Institute where they have discovered that despite their many disagreements, they also have discovered much common ground.

In the book, Haskins and Sawhill note, “Those who finish high school, work full time, and marry before having children are virtually guaranteed a place in the middle class.”

The authors identify this formula as the “success sequence”: finish high school and attain a postsecondary degree or credential, work full-time and marry before becoming a parent. Follow the sequence and you have just a 2 percent chance of ever living in poverty. Don’t follow the sequence, and your odds of poverty increase to 75 percent.

For people living in poverty, Haskins and Sawhill acknowledge that the success sequence is not as simple as it sounds. The causes of poverty, they argue, include many factors related to personal behavior, economic structures and social influences. But one factor stands out above the rest: “Hopelessness – a sense of passivity or fatalism in the face of limited opportunity.”

They quote researcher Jason DeParle who reported on teens living in poverty, “The real theme of their early lives was profound alienation – not of hopes discarded but of hopes that never took shape.”

In effect, growing up poor often means believing that success is for someone else, that effort does not matter, so why even try?

An effective statewide program, run by Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development, is providing an inspiring answer to that demoralizing question. Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) identifies low-income high school students who are at risk of dropping out. The students receive focused attention through tutoring, study skills, life skills training and exposure to postsecondary education. The program also partners with employers to offer jobs, internships and workforce readiness skills.

Over the last five years, JAG has served nearly 2,500 low-income students across the state with 90 percent graduating from high school. Among the graduates, 45 percent enter postsecondary education and 55 percent gain full-time employment.

Most importantly, JAG is breaking through the hopelessness that plagues children in poverty. According to Julie Puttmann, who leads the JAG program in Sullivan High School in west central Indiana, “The biggest change that happens to our students is they realize they don’t have to accept everything as they’ve always seen things their entire lives. They can do something else. They learn that they have value and that there is value and reward in trying.

“Our students realize for the first time that they can make it.”

More poverty means more adults and children who have immediate needs that can be met through private charity and the public safety net. However, the increase in poverty also calls attention to longer-term solutions based on family structure, education and work.

And the success of Jobs for America’s Graduates highlights the opportunities that are available to youth in poverty through school, business and community partnerships.

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