OCALA, Fla. — When the school year kicks off later this week, almost one-third of the students who file into Marion County classrooms will be coming from poverty-stricken homes.

Thirty-one percent of Marion County children live in poverty. In 2007, it was just over 21 percent.

Why has Marion regressed? What is being done to improve this record? How does our community address child poverty?

Those are three of the questions the Star-Banner will be asking during this school year as we publish a series of stories about child poverty. Although timed to the academic calendar, the stories won’t just focus on schools; the paper will be checking with the medical community, social service providers, the legal community, and others.

The high level of child poverty shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a well-documented problem here.

The Census Bureau publishes poverty figures every year. So do the University of Wisconsin and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Florida KIDS Count. WellFlorida cites poverty numbers in its periodic Marion County health assessments. Four years ago, the Public Policy Institute of Marion County cited poverty figures in its study of early education.

The Star-Banner dutifully reports on it all. Community leaders acknowledge the figures. Nothing really changes.

The high level of child poverty isn’t ignored, either. It’s a well-addressed issue here.

Government provides funds to feed low-income kids during the school year and summer. Thanks to a private program, low-income kids get backpacks full of food to help them over weekends.

Getting kids out of poverty means getting families out of poverty, and that means finding jobs for parents and caretakers. Job programs are in no short supply here.

Job creation and wage improvement are the top priorities of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP). Its latest five-year plan, announced earlier this year, calls for creating 4,500 new jobs averaging 115 percent of the county’s average wage. This follows the CEP’s first five-year plan, which succeeded in creating 3,500 jobs in that same salary range.

CareerSource Citrus Levy Marion’s goal is to match job seekers and employers. The College of Central Florida, the school district, private schools – all of them have special programs to train and deploy people into the work world.

And there has been success: Marion County’s unemployment rate was 5 percent in June, down from 6 percent in June 2016. It was as high as 14.5 percent in summer 2010. The local economy is diversifying, with transportation and logistics gaining a strong hold alongside the traditional retail and hospitality sectors. The Ocala metro area, which is all of Marion County, has consistently led the state in new professional and business services jobs this year.

But despite the consistent recognition of the problem, and the energetic efforts to improve it, the percentage of Marion County children living in poverty has remained stubbornly high.

In its most recent comprehensive report, measuring the 2011-15 period, the Census Bureau reported that 31.3 percent of Marion County children live in poverty. It was 22.5 percent in the 2005-09 period.

For the most recent single year, 2015, the Census Bureau put child poverty here at 33.5 percent – 10 percentage points higher than the state and 13 points higher than the nation. In the one-year report for 2007, 21.6 percent of Marion children lived in poverty.

There are other statistics that can be cited, but all of them show child poverty here has registered in the 30 percent range for several years running.

If unemployment is down and the economy in general is improving, why is the percentage of children living in poverty on the rise?

Income: “Wages have not increased,” noted Dr. Mike Jordan, head of the Marion County Children’s Alliance.

Average earnings for Marion County workers actually dipped seven-tenths of 1 percent ($44,234 to $43,925) between 2010 and 2015, according to the Census Bureau. Median household income was stuck at $39,459 in 2015 compared with $40,339 in 2010. The average paycheck here is about 71 percent of the state average.

Karla Grimsley, executive director of Interfaith Emergency Services, said women living in her agency’s shelter can find work, but low wages don’t provide them enough to live on. So, even though the percentage of people not working has dropped, that doesn’t necessarily mean fewer children and families are in poverty, which is defined as about $24,600 per year for a family of four.

“You cannot live on the minimum wage anymore,” Grimsley said.

Even if they could get a good-paying job, and could secure reliable transportation, the clients Grimsley works with are just one illness or car breakdown away from financial ruin.

Social factors: Although the teen birth rate has declined, the percentage of children born to unwed mothers was 55 percent in 2015, 7 percentage points higher than the state. This statistic has been on the rise: It was 54 percent in 2010 and 51 percent in 2005.

In Marion, almost 38 percent of female-headed families, with no husband present, live in poverty. That percentage has been creeping up. Only 9.7 percent of married couple families with children are in poverty. Overall, 1 in 3 children in Marion County lives in a female-head-of-household family.

One of those families is led by Michelle, a 44-year-old Ocala woman who asked that her last name not be used to protect her children’s privacy.

She recently got a part-time job that pays $9 an hour. But she has no reliable transportation and, until just recently, had been living in a shelter with her two school-age children.

“I’m searching for a second job to be able to pull it all together,” she said.

Michelle said a variety of factors led her to where she is today. She had a good job on Florida’s east coast and has marketable office and medical skills. She moved to Marion County to care for a sick relative and, later, was denied a family home that she had been counting on. Her estranged husband does not pay child support, she lost her driver’s license due to a DUI, and she couldn’t stave off homelessness for herself and her children.

“At least my new place will be in bus range,” she said.

Drugs: The nationwide opioid crisis has hit Marion County hard. In 2015, Marion had one overdose death from fentanyl, six from heroin, three from hydrocodone and six from oxycodone. In all, there were 38 overdose deaths involving the drugs that are tracked in opioid databases. The numbers are getting worse: Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said Ocala alone had 70 overdose deaths in 2016 and is on pace to reach that mark again this year.

In Florida, the number of children removed temporarily or permanently from their homes because of suspected abuse or neglect increased 31 percent between June 2013 and June 2016. Experts say drug addiction is one of the key reasons behind this alarming increase. And that says nothing of the children whose families haven’t reached that point yet, but still have remained in poverty, or slipped into it, because of caretakers’ drug problems.

Unexpected events: Mark McFarland was general concession manager for a large national carnival company. He and his family had a house, cars, retirement savings.

“We thought we had done everything right,” the Ocala resident said.

Then, in late 2014, he got sick (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) and lost his job and health insurance. The cars and house soon were lost. In less than a year, he and his wife, Ashleigh, and son, also named Mark, were living in the woods and waiting for Salvation Army shelter beds to open.

Just like that, Mark, now age 8, became part of the 31 percent of Marion children who live in poverty.

Things are better for the McFarland family now. Thanks to United Way’s Strong Families program, they have managed to find stable housing. Ashleigh McFarland is a hotel housekeeper; her husband has secured SSI and disability coverage.

They pay the bills and save a little. But “there’s usually not a lot left over” each month, Mark McFarland said.

Social service experts emphasize that these types of situations are more common than most people think. A series of cascading events could quickly take families out of a life of comfort and into a life of poverty.

What can be done to reduce child poverty?

Grimsley emphasizes job/skill training programs and the creation of better paying jobs.

The Children’s Alliance and Kids Central, a social service agency, have teamed up on the Building Better Dads program, designed to “identify and address the needs of fathers and facilitate their involvement in the lives of their children.”

Guinn has created a special heroin/opioid task force. Florida Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency because of the drug problem. The federal government has identified opioid abuse as a top challenge; toward that end, the Justice Department announced last week that it will dispatch 12 federal prosecutors to areas, including Central Florida, to focus on health care fraud and opioid scams.

Local social service agencies aren’t just trying to help poor families be more comfortable; they also are trying to bring families out of poverty altogether. United Way’s Strong Families program is a prime example. Its first two classes had a combined 25 or so families, and 30 families are signed up for the third class. Strong Families is “a financial stability effort that helps families get out of poverty and enhance their housing opportunities through skill building, case management, and mentoring,” according to the United Way.

A committee working under the umbrella of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has been tasked with building an agenda to reduce child poverty by half in 10 years. Committee members are discussing topics such as low-income housing, reducing unplanned pregnancies, and eliminating marriage penalties in means-tested programs.

The American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, is focusing its efforts on emphasizing marriage before children as a means of avoiding, and escaping, poverty.

“Even millennials from low-income families are more likely to flourish if they married before having children: 71 percent who married before having children made it into the middle or higher end of the income distribution by the time they are age 28-34. By comparison, only 41 percent of millennials from lower-income families who had children first made it into the middle or higher end of the distribution when they reached ages 28-34,” says a study the institute published this summer.

The Star-Banner’s series will dig deeper into the problem and explore these and other proposed solutions. The goals: finding out how we got here and identifying the best ways out.

The school system

At the outset of this occasional series, the Star-Banner checked in with the public school system.

When it comes to students and poverty, food is the relatively easy part.

Marion County public schools offer free breakfast to all students, regardless of income status. All elementary students are offered free lunch, as well. In middle and high school, low-income students qualify for free lunch. There is government funding to help with this and with summer feeding programs. The system is well established and the infrastructure – kitchens, cafeterias, administrative support – is in place.

Other challenges are tougher to tackle.

Consider school readiness. A landmark study from 20 years ago, still valid today, shows that a child living in poverty hears 30 million fewer words in his or her first four years of development than a child living in a household with college-educated adults. As a result, researchers found, children from low-income homes had much greater vocabulary gaps in preschool, which equated to lower language skills and lower test scores.

The upshot: Nearly 1 in 3 Marion County children begins school with a major vocabulary gap that must somehow be bridged before the all-important Florida Standards Assessments in third grade.

Jonathan Grantham, deputy superintendent of schools, said districts should not punish children who start with such disadvantages. The vocabulary gap isn’t their fault. And it is not the parents’ fault in most cases. After all, the parents are often working multiple jobs just to put food on the table.

Grantham said Marion County schools once tried to treat every child equally in the classroom. Though that may sound good on paper, it was actually having a negative impact on learning for all students.

For example: Five children in every 18-student class might not have online capabilities at home. In the past, to ensure equality, teachers were told to not give home assignments that required internet.

Grantham said that actually is the worst solution. The district has ditched the equality mandate and replaced it with an “equity” mandate: Internet based-learning is valuable for all students, and teachers and administrators must help the children without home internet find time to do those internet-related assignments on campus. This can be accomplished before or after school, or by paraprofessionals taking children to the library during class time to help them with internet assignments.

“It is the job of the teacher and the administration to determine what those needs are and figure out a way to help them meet those needs,” Grantham said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all world we live in.”

The district is moving to provide more laptops for students. One day, it hopes to have one computer for every student. Evergreen Elementary School, whose student body has a high percentage from low-income families, will be the first school to have Chromebooks available for all.

Even something as seemingly simple as school supplies are a challenge in a county where 31 percent of children live in poverty. Marion County collects school supplies each summer through Stuff the Bus program, and the Public Education Foundation of Marion County operates the Tools 4 Teaching store, which supplies teachers with free classroom supplies.


Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/