WILKES-BARRE — With the childhood poverty rate in Luzerne County nearly doubling over a decade, Bill Jones said something has to be done to reduce it.
Jones, president and CEO of the United Way of Wyoming Valley, called for a community-wide effort and said Friday a public forum will be held next week at Luzerne County Community College.
While details of the invitation-only forum starting at 8:15 a.m. on April 9 at the college’s Educational Conference Center were forthcoming, Jones provided details on a recently completed study on the poverty rate.
County-wide, one in four children under 18 live in poverty, according to a study done by the Wilkes University-based Institute for Public Policy and Economic Development.
The rate has risen to 28.6 percent in 2012 from just under 15 percent in 2000. The percentage increases to 33 percent for children under 5. A family of four earning less than $23,492 a year meets the federal poverty level.
“I can’t think of any more important meaningful work than for us to begin to address the needs of our children in our community,” Jones said during a visit to the Luzerne County Head Start on Beekman Street. The United Way supports the agency that provides early childhood education and nutrition programs for 1,100 children.
“It’s alarming,” Jones said of the county’s childhood poverty rate. “That’s why we’re here today at Head Start. To lift children out of poverty education, early childhood work is so important, nutrition, income stability for families all those things are just so critical and that’s why we’re looking at where does the United Way go and how do we address these issues to better serve our community.”
Harry Heck, a volunteer at Head Start, and his wife Elizabeth have custody of their four grandchildren. One of them, 4-year-old Adam Shariff, attends the program.
“I always thought it was everybody elses’ problem and now I found out it’s my problem and the kids’ problem too,” said Heck, 67, of Wilkes-Barre.
His daughter has a substance abuse problem and is in rehab in Rochester, N.Y., Heck said. The grandparents got custody because the alternative was worse. “It was either that or in a home,” he said.
Substance abuse, battered women and parents who just don’t care about their children contribute to the increased poverty rate, he suggested.
Add to them the local economy and the region’s high unemployment rate, Jones said. But funding alone will not solve the problem.
“County government spends $125 million a year on social services,” he said. “There are needs and there are things that just aren’t being focused on right now.”
All the more reason “to invest our dollars more strategically and thoughtfully to address some of these critical issues,” he said.
Head Start list
Lynn Evans-Biga, the executive director of Head Start, said that the agency has a waiting list of between 500 and 700 children.
Head Start takes a generational approach and deals with the parents of the children as well, she explained.
The adults who did not finish high school are able to study for a GED or the General Educational Development test through a program with Luzerne County Community College. “The funding comes through the college,” she said, adding while the children are at Head Start, the parents can study there.