Kids Struggle

Services fall as poverty, homelessness, hunger rise

Hard Times in High Country

Hard Times in High Country

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The long, economic stall in Gila County has driven families into poverty, cut off children’s health care, pushed the price of child care out of reach and spurred a host of problems for young families, according to a just released report on the state of the county’s children.

Tragically, children’s need for help has peaked just as state budget cuts have stripped away services to provide that help, according to the report prepared by consultants for First Things First.

The bundle of voter-established early childhood education and benefits programs is funded by a $324 million tax on tobacco. Voters in 2010 renewed the program when they rejected an initiative approved by the Legislature to divert the tobacco tax money back into the general fund.

The report showed an alarming rise in the poverty-related challenges facing young families in Gila County, but noted that ever-tighter limits on welfare eligibility and the elimination of state-federal programs that provided health care for children in families on the edge of poverty have left many families with nowhere to go.

For instance, despite the rising poverty rates and unemployment that remains well above the state average, the number of Gila County families on welfare has declined as has the number of children covered by the state’s AHCCCS program.

By contrast, the number of families getting the $29-a-week-per-person food stamp (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits has increased steadily and totaled about 1,500 families in 2011.

The report offered an array of measurements of the declining state of Gila County children, including the lack of investigations into child abuse and neglect, a rising number of children without health insurance, high rates of teen pregnancy, lower birth weight babies and other indicators.

The findings in the report include:

— Impoverished families – usually mothers raising children alone – can now receive welfare benefits for no more than 24 months in their lifetime, compared to 60 months before 2010.

— Gila County’s foreclosure rate in 2012 totaled 1 in 712 homes, twice the state average.

— Gila County has only enough child care slots for 1 in 10 of the kids of working families.

— Child care costs average $4,300 annually. That means the average single mother after paying for rent and child care has only $82 a week to cover food, medical, clothing, utilities, gas and other necessities.

— Only 70 percent of pregnant women in Gila County got prenatal care in the crucial first trimester, compared to 82 percent statewide.

— The median Gila County family income for those with children under 18 stands at $39,000, about 30 percent below the state average. The $52,000 average in the Globe School District compares to $48,000 in Payson.

— Female-headed households with children in Gila County had a median income of $21,450.

— The percentages of families living in poverty varied across the county, but included 25 percent in the Payson school district, 54 percent in Tonto Basin, 20 percent in Pine and 20 percent in Globe. The countywide average of 30 percent compared to the statewide average of 23 percent.

— Many child care centers suffer a 36 percent annual turnover rate due to salaries as low as $19,000 for a teacher with a Child Development Associate degree or $25,000 for a certified child care teacher with a BA.

— Young families losing their health insurance or struggling to pay their deductible have faced rising health woes. For instance, the percentage of low birth weight babies in Payson has doubled since 2006 and hit 8.1 percent in 2010. Strongly affected by prenatal care, low birth weight babies have an increased risk of a host of medical and developmental problems.

— An alarming 12 percent of Gila County mothers smoke during pregnancy, compared to 5 percent statewide.

— The number of low-income children with coverage through the expanded AHCCCS program KidCare has plunged since the Legislature cut off new enrollments to save money. The number of children covered in Gila County peaked at 482 in 2007, but dropped to 70 in January of 2012.

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