Palm Beach Post, March 1, 2008: Poverty, hunger rates in county called ‘depressing’

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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, March 01, 2008

BOYNTON BEACH Palm Beach County may be one of the wealthiest in the state, but a new report finds an alarming number of families with children living in poverty.

The cupboard in one in three households with an annual income of $35,000 or less in Palm Beach County goes empty before money is found to fill it again, according to an analysis by the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County.

The report’s findings from 2007 were “depressing” and it would take a combined effort of social agencies and organizations to meet the needs of poor and hungry families, Perry Borman, assistant administrator for the Department of Children and Families’ 15th District, said during a panel discussion Friday.

“Whatever we do, we have to look at better targeting and directing these programs to where the need is,” Borman said. “We have significant work to do to improve.”

The analysis of family economics undertaken in 2007 shows 12 percent of families with children earn less than $20,650 a year.

Even more disheartening is the amount of federal money earmarked for assistance, such as food stamps and free or reduced meals, that goes unused – $105 million each year in Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach ranks sixth worst among counties in the United States for participation in the food stamps program, with only 29.6 percent of eligible residents receiving aid.

And with decreasing property tax revenue in government coffers, the choices of what to fund will become tougher, Assistant Palm Beach County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said. The gloomy findings require even greater cooperation between the public and private agencies, he said.

“These are severe and complex problems, and there are no easy solutions,” Van Arnam said. “If we don’t change the way we do things, these number aren’t going to get any better.”

Several agencies have launched initiatives to provide improved services and outreach.

A DCF pilot program intends to decrease the average 28-day period between applying for food stamps and receiving them. Nearly 35 percent of applicants drop out before receiving the stamps.

And The United Way of Palm Beach County runs several “Prosperity Centers” where residents can go for a variety of needs, from free tax preparation to screenings for food stamps and Kidcare.

Many working families won’t take days off of work to fill out paperwork and visit multiple offices to apply for aid, said Calvin Phillips, director of the Lantana Beacon Center, whose clients come from Haiti or Latin America. The process should be streamlined with agencies coming into the communities and offering weekend hours, he said.

“The question some of them have is do I leave my job for two days and lose it?” Phillips said of seeking aid. “It’s a Catch-22.”

Chris Oberlink, chair elect of the Children’s Services Council, said affordable housing as well as rising food and gas prices are pushing many families under the poverty line. It’s important to get the word out to residents who qualify that aid is available, she said.

“Basic needs have become more of a priority in the current environment,” Oberlink said. “We need to do better getting access to services to our clients.”

A snapshot of the needy

* One in seven Palm Beach County families with children under 5 lives in poverty.

* 47.9 percent of families with single mothers raising children are living in poverty.

* 863 homeless students attend school in Palm Beach County. Forty-five percent of students, or 79,486, in county public schools receive free or reduced lunches.

* One in three households with an annual income of $35,000 or less runs out of food before finding money to buy more.

Source: Children’s Services Council

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