The Republican (Springfield, MA), January 11, 2008: Poverty soaring for area students

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The percent of school children living in poverty has grown significantly over the last five years in Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee and more than a dozen other school districts in the Connecticut River Valley, according to new figures from the U.S. Census bureau.

However, area school officials said they rely on the number of children who qualify for free or reduced cost lunches in their districts as a measure of poverty in their schools, and based on those figures, the federal numbers grossly underestimate the problem.

“The numbers are atrociously low. They are half of what they should be,” said Springfield School Superintendent Joseph P. Burke.

The Census Bureau reported that 33.2 percent of school children ages 5 to 17 in the Springfield School District were living below the federal poverty level in 2005, up from 27.2 percent in 2000.

However, Burke said about 77 percent of Springfield students are receiving free or reduced cost lunches. Under the program, students from families living below 185 percent of the federal poverty level can receive free or discounted meals based on family income.

Indeed, the gap between the income a family needs to live a basic life and what the federal government defines as poverty is sizable, said Maura Geary, director of public policy at United Way of Pioneer Valley. “For a family of three, for a parent and two children, the federal poverty level is defined as an income of $17,000. Yet the self-sufficiency level, which is the income needed to pay for necessities like rent, food, heat and health care, in Hampden County is about $46,500. Clearly, there are many families living in that gap,” she said.

This morning, the United Way is convening a panel that is studying poverty in Springfield. The group of 15 to 20 officials of city departments, nonprofit agencies and other groups that work with the United Way is trying to find ways to reduce poverty locally and to help families and individuals rise out of it.

“If we continue to do the same things, we will get some of the same results. We need innovation. We have to have a community agenda that will have a measurable impact on the poverty level,” Geary said.

Burke called for “an integration of services for families.”

“Right now there is no real coherence to the process. They go to one office for one set of services and another office for another set of services. It needs some efficiency. People can fall through the cracks,” he said.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2005, 17 percent of all children ages 5 to 17 in the United States were living in poverty, while 12.5 percent of children in Massachusetts were.

The latest census figures showed that in the Connecticut River Valley, the poverty rate in 2005 among school children was highest in the Holyoke (39.7 percent), Springfield (33.2 percent) and Chicopee (20.3 percent) school districts.

Among districts with at least 500 students, the 2005 poverty rate was lowest in the Southampton (3.1 percent), Longmeadow (3.8 percent) and Hampshire (4.2 percent) school districts.

The figures showed that between 2000 and 2005 the percent of school children living in poverty increased by at least two percentage points in 18 of the 37 school districts in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin Counties with more than 500 students.

However, in three districts – Easthampton, Greenfield and Gill-Montague – the rate of poverty among school children fell at least 2 percentage points over the five years, according to the figures.

Easthampton School Superintendent Deborah N. Carter said she has seen the opposite trend in her district. The census figures said 11.9 percent of Easthampton’s students were living in poverty, down from 13.9 percent in 2000.

“In fact, we’ve seen an increase in the last few years of children in the free and reduced cost lunch program. It’s now 24 percent of our kids,” she said.

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