Groups tackle child poverty - Catholic Courier

Groups tackle child poverty

Xavier Peterson is sorting out the mysteries of a fraction’s denominator.

“You have to make the two denominators the same,” he said as he worked through a math problem recently.

“Not when you multiply,” replied John Hayes, president and chief operating officer of GLC Business Services in Rochester. “When you add, you do.”

Each Monday, in a room lined with school supplies and textbooks at Rochester’s St. Andrew School, Hayes helps Xavier, 12, get a leg up on his school work.

Yet it’s clear that Xavier is not the only one getting something from the weekly lessons. Hayes, a father of 10, goes through the half-hour lessons with a big smile on his face.

Though he has tutored several students, he has a special nickname for Xavier: “Mayor,” a reference to the boy’s in-charge nature.

“He could be on TV,” Hayes said. “He could. I want to be (his) agent.”

“Sure,” Xavier said nonchalantly.

At a friend’s suggestion five years ago, Hayes began tutoring at St. Andrew through Project Unity, a diocesan program that aims to build connections between urban and suburban parishes.

“There’s a great attitude in this school,” he said. “This school is very healthy and well-organized, and my time is well-spent.”

The program is one of several attempting to give children like Xavier a fighting chance amid the childhood poverty that is rampant in the City of Rochester. According to the Children’s Agenda, a Monroe County-based children’s advocacy group, 38 percent of Rochester children under the age of 12 live in poverty, making the city the 11th worst for child poverty in the U.S.

Other statistics likewise paint a dire picture of the area’s youths in poverty. Only about 40 percent of Rochester City School District students entering high school graduate. Sixteen percent of Monroe County children under the age of 12 show at least one severe behavioral or developmental problem. About 7 percent of children in Rochester do not have health insurance.

The Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee this year is focusing its efforts on children at risk, including those in poverty, living in unsafe neighborhoods, facing mental-health issues and lacking adequate child care. Parishioners will be asked to sign petitions in churches Feb. 10 and 11, asking the state to include in its upcoming budget expanded investments in child care. The petitions will be delivered to politicians in March during the New York State Catholic Conference’s annual Public Policy Forum.

“The reason why we chose (this issue is that) the reality is kind of hitting us in the face,” said committee member Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research at Rochester’s Catholic Family Center. “For a person of faith to see that and not respond is kind of a scandal.”

Interconnected issues

The U.S. Census Bureau classifies families as poor depending on their incomes and the number of people living in their households. A single person younger than 65 with an income of $10,160 or less is considered poor, as is a parent with two children and an income of less than $15,735. For a family of five — two parents and three children — the poverty line is $23,307.

By this formula, 30 percent of Rochester’s population and 41 percent of the city’s children are living below the poverty level, according to 2005 Census figures. A majority — 105,000 of the 188,000 people the census recently surveyed — were at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Mich said other areas of the diocese also are struggling with child poverty, although the problem is not as concentrated in rural areas. According to 2005 Census data, Chemung County has a child-poverty rate of 21.5 percent; Cayuga County is 18.5 percent; Monroe and Tompkins counties are 18 percent; Steuben County is 17.4 percent; Wayne County is 8.3 percent; and Ontario County is 4.5 percent.

Poverty is linked with many social problems, Mich said, noting, for example, that hunger and poor health care can hamper academic performance.

“We are trying to educate our Catholic population so when we have to make a decision using our values, we are more acutely aware of the needs of the vulnerable in our community,” he said.

One initiative the public-policy committee supports is increasing public funding for accredited child-care programs. In Chemung County, for instance, infant care in child-care centers costs $80 to $160 a week, while toddler care costs about $135 a week, said Kathy Dubel, another public-policy committee member and justice-and-peace director for Catholic Charities of Chemung, Schuyler and Tioga counties.

“This takes a big chunk out of low incomes,” Dubel said.

In Chemung County, 554 low-income families — including 1,104 children — who earn as much as 175 percent of the poverty level receive assistance with child-care costs. These families are expected to pay 35 percent of their weekly child-care costs, which Dubel said is a struggle for many. The county child-care subsidy pays the rest. Also, families earning 176 percent or more of the poverty level are expected to pay the full cost for placing their children in approved child-care centers.

“Many families are forced to make less-than-desirable arrangements because of the costs,” Dubel said. “Child-care advocates say that a 10 percent contribution by families is more reasonable. Every county decides what percentage families will contribute. This needs to be more consistent statewide.”

In October, Monroe County officials announced that the county’s eligibility limit for child-care subsidies would rise to 165 percent of the poverty level, up from 150 percent. The new eligibility limit will allow a working parent earning about $21,000 a year to receive a child-care subsidy, officials said, noting that the families of an estimated 370 additional children would be helped by the higher income limit.

To qualify for the child-care subsidy, which helps an average of 9,000 Monroe County children a month, parents must be working or seeking employment. The estimated $650,000 cost of additional subsidies will be paid for through the state’s child-care block grant. The county also is phasing in a child and adult food-care program for low-cost nutritious meals at child-care sites, officials said.

Still, child-care subsidies could be increased. Ideally, eligibility levels would be increased to 200 percent of the poverty line, Mich said.

The Diocesan Public Policy Committee also would like to see a statewide system of compensation and incentives to retain early childhood teachers and caregivers and help support their professional development, Dubel said.

The committee also supports the passage of Timothy’s Law, which calls for insurance coverage for mental-health care at the same levels as physical-health care (see related story on page B7).

In addition, the committee hopes to see new statewide legislation to certify lead-paint inspectors. In July, the City of Rochester began requiring lead-paint inspections for rental units, and it provides grants to landlords of up to $24,000 for lead-paint abatement. Other communities, such as Steuben and Cayuga counties, also have created programs to address lead-paint problems. New York state requires testing children for lead poisoning near their first and second birthdays, but the public-policy committee also is pushing for legislation to increase funding for lead-paint abatement, Mich said.

According to 2005 Census statistics, an estimated 94.5 percent of the 83,000 City of Rochester homes and apartments were built in 1979 or earlier. Lead was not banned as an ingredient in paint until 1978.

“There are close to 700 new childhood lead-poisoning cases each year in Rochester,” noted Joseph Hill, communications director for the Rochester-based Coalition to End Lead Poisoning.

Even a small amount of lead has been shown to cause permanent brain damage to children who unknowingly ingest it. Lead can cause attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, memory problems, behavioral and language problems, and an increase in dropout rates, and some studies have shown a link between high lead levels and crime, Hill said. Although some treatments have been developed to reduce lead levels in children, the brain damage caused by lead poisoning is permanent, he noted.


While the public-policy committee works to change laws, Catholic educators say education, hope and prayer are key to bringing children out of poverty.

“The two things that are needed are education and hope for the future on the part of the child, as well as expectations for success,” said Tracy Nadler, principal of St. Andrew School.

Nadler said some parents are surprised to learn that the Wegman Inner City Voucher Program can help with the educational component. The program pays for between 50 percent and 80 percent of tuition, based on a family’s income and dependents.

Established in 1995 by Peggy Wegman and the late Robert Wegman, the program provides tuition assistance to students at six Rochester Catholic schools: Corpus Christi, Holy Family, St. Andrew, St. Boniface, Cathedral School at Holy Rosary and St. Monica.

Some tuition assistance also is available to WIN students who go on to Catholic middle and high schools. All told, the Wegman family has given $40 million in tuition assistance for Rochester diocesan schools over the past decade, St. Andrew officials said.

A majority of students in the WIN schools currently receive tuition assistance from WIN. At St. Andrew School, about 78 percent of students also qualify for federal free or reduced-price meals, a commonly used indicator of economic need.

“If children are successful, that has to change the tenor of the city,” said Patricia Jones, diocesan assistant school superintendent for the WIN schools. “That’s my belief. Many of these children are being raised by grandparents. Even if (these families) are paying $500 a year (in tuition), it’s a sacrifice.”

Catholic-school officials say their high graduation rates are a sign of the programs’ success. According to statistics provided by the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, 92.6 percent of WIN school graduates between 1996 to 1999 went on to graduate from high school, as compared to a 32-percent graduation rate from the Rochester city schools during the same period. One in five general-education students in Rochester City School District high schools during 2000 and 2001 dropped out, the statistics showed.

To make sure students don’t slip through the cracks, five of Rochester’s Catholic schools have received help from Project Unity tutors during the past four years, according to Sister Janet Korn, social-justice awareness coordinator for diocesan Catholic Charities. She said a sixth school, St. Boniface, recently was added to the tutoring program, which provides the services of about 30 volunteer tutors, she said.

“There’s been a very generous response to the call for tutors,” Sister Korn said, adding that she hopes in the future the program also will be able to provide tutors to Rochester’s public schools as well.

One benefit of the program is that the volunteer tutors build relationships with students and serve as positive role models, Nadler said.

“We have some long-term volunteers who have become part of our community, who we cherish, and they cherish us,” she said. “These are people who say they receive as much as they give.”

Christina Lynch, preschool director at St. Andrew, said many parents have decided to follow their children’s lead and pursue additional education for themselves. Although it’s a struggle to afford classes for themselves, private-school tuition for their children and still hold down hourly wage jobs, most parents find the added education eventually pays off, she said.

That’s the lesson teachers are trying to pass on to their children, Lynch noted.

“I think we are introducing them to what’s available, and to what education can do for them, and giving them a good start,” she said.

Xavier Peterson said he appreciates the extra help he gets through the tutoring program.

“I like people to help me, so I can become a better person,” he said.

Stark contrast

Caring adult volunteers are also the key resource for another ministry that supports children in poverty.

The House of Mercy Summer Youth Project is designed to help keep city kids safe, fed, happy and learning during the summer, according to Nora Bradbury-Haehl, youth minister at St. Paul Church in Webster. The camp, which this year took place at Rochester’s St. Bridget Church, serves about 50 to 60 Rochester children each summer.

Run by the House of Mercy, a ministry of the Rochester Sisters of Mercy, the camp is staffed by such volunteers as members of St. Paul’s youth group. Bradbury-Haehl said the teenaged workers usually are stunned by the disparity in suburban and urban recreation-program resources.

“One of our (youth group members) was volunteering at a (suburban) summer-recreation program the week after camp, and she went into a craft room, which was filled with supplies from floor to ceiling and wall to wall,” Bradbury-Haehl said. The teen contrasted that program against the Youth Project day camp, which stores all of its glue and construction paper — obtained through donations and the kindness of strangers — in a small cupboard.

“For some of these (city) kids, this is their only lifeline,” Bradbury-Haehl said of the program. “If it weren’t for us, they would be at home, which is a drug house on a violent street and in harm’s way. This is a safe place. Our kids say they are definitely changed by the experience.”

The program sprang up as a way to provide kids during the summer with the free and reduced-cost meals they normally receive during the school year, Bradbury-Haehl said.

“People have this idea that there’s a support system for them, but there’s so many holes in the support system, and it’s so difficult to negotiate, and it’s stretched so thin,” she said.

And after a day at the camp, such social-justice issues as poverty are forever personalized for her teen volunteers, Bradbury-Haehl said, noting that she keeps returning to the camp because of the children it serves.

“I look at these kids and know that 15 minutes away, people have no idea the kind of situations these kids grow up in,” she said.

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