Poverty is still a threat post-Great Recession

While improvements have been made, poverty is still a threat in Elkhart County.

Posted on Dec. 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

Massive job losses. Crushing unemployment. Presidential visits, network news coverage and breathless stories in The New York Times.

We all remember the Great Recession. Some of us distantly, perhaps. But we cannot afford to forget how it affected us, for it continues to fuel our recovery.

Figures released before Thanksgiving show Elkhart County unemployment at 7.4 percent in October. It stood at 8.9 percent a year earlier.

To show how far we’ve come, the county’s jobless rate spiked at 20.2 percent in March 2009 — an increase of 14.4 points over the same month in 2008, which led the nation.

Business, civic and political leaders crafted economic strategy that continues to add jobs at a breathtaking pace. After leading the nation in job growth between March 2011 and March 2012, Elkhart County finished third this year. Only two counties in the United States finished ahead of us in gross domestic product growth in 2011-12.

Through October, RV shipments grew by nearly 13 percent over 2012. But proof of our recovery continues to emerge in smaller, more surprising ways. For instance, Goshen’s public schools suddenly found it difficult to hire substitute teachers this fall because so many had either taken full-time jobs with the district or found work elsewhere. And just last week, the Boys and Girls Club of Goshen announced that it was ending its BAK-PAK-A-KID program.

When the Boys and Girls Club started the project 11 years ago, it distributed backpacks and school supplies to 25 children from families in need. That number grew to 1,200 but fell off this summer.

Why? Volunteer coordinator Diane Holderman pointed out that a number of local organizations sprang up to help families with school supplies, including Back2School Elkhart, which started at the height of the recession in 2009. Holderman also noted that Goshen Community Schools recently started providing students in kindergarten through fifth grade with free school supplies.

But it also stands to reason that as more people find work, fewer need help meeting their basic needs.

Fewer, but not all. That’s the part we cannot forget.

The recession not only threw people out of work, it hurled them into poverty. Overall, the county’s poverty rate grew from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 18.3 percent in 2011. But the most vulnerable among us suffered the most — according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, childhood poverty in Elkhart County increased from 16.2 percent to 27.4 percent between 2007 and 2011.

STATS Indiana reports that in 2012, Elkhart County ranked 42nd statewide in per capita income ($35,550) but 52nd in 2011 median household income ($44,354) and 15th in overall poverty (18.3 percent). Perhaps even more telling, we finished 2011 fifth in average monthly families receiving welfare (814) and food stamp recipients (29,785).

A staggering 20,045 of the county’s children qualified this fall for free and reduced-cost lunches. We ranked fifth in that category, too.

No matter how quickly or substantially an economy improves, that kind of poverty takes time to eradicate.

While we add jobs and diversify our economy, we must also train the next high-tech workforce — the same generation now struggling with 27 percent poverty and the social, developmental and physical disadvantages it creates. If we do not find ways to address the harm our children have endured, we’ll never be able to sustain our hard-won economic recovery.

Despite all our gains during the past five years, poverty remains a threat to us. The four local companies, soup kitchens and ministries collecting winter coats for people in need will barely be able to keep up with demand. Churches and charitable agencies need our help to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and help brighten Christmas for those struggling to make ends meet.

That is why we should celebrate our recovery but remember the recession. Because as a community, we still have work to do.

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