Growing Childhood Poverty in Nevada Could Undermine Recent Educational Investments

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By Niko Centeno-Montoy – In 2015, Governor Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature invested roughly $400 million in education each year over the 2015-2017 biennium. Unfortunately, the growing number of children living in poverty in Nevada could undermine the Silver State’s historic investments in education.

According to newly released data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, the United States has made some strides for families and children’s overall well-being. Nevada’s overall rank, however, was unchanged, as the Silver State ranked 47th overall for children in the U.S. for a second year in a row.

The annual KIDS COUNT assessment collects information on 16 indicators in four areas: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. While Nevada improved on 11 of 16 indicators collected annually, there are others that worsened. These indicators include:

  • the percentage of children living in poverty (22 percent in 2014, up from 15 percent in 2008)
  • the percentage of children living in high-poverty areas (14 percent in 2014, up from 6 percent in 2008)
  • the percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment (32 percent in 2014, up from 26 percent in 2008)
  • the percentage of children living in single-parent families (39 percent in 2014, up from 33 percent in 2008), and
  • the percentage of low birthweight babies (22 percent in 2014, up from 15 percent in 2008).

In Nevada, slightly more than one in five children live in poverty and 14 percent live in high-poverty rates. These rates are identical to the national rates. For the other indicators, Nevada fares worse than the national average. In the U.S., 30 percent of children have parents who lack secure employment (versus 32 percent in Nevada) and 35 percent of children live in single parent homes (compared to 39 percent in Nevada).

Nevada had low rankings include the percentage of high school students not graduating on time (50th), the percentage of children ages 3 and 4 not attending school (49th), and the percentage of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma (48th). On a brighter note, Nevada’s biggest improvements were the percentage of teens abusing alcohol and drugs (5th), and the child and teen death rate (22nd).

While Nevada’s rank remains unchanged from the previous year’s report at 47th overall, it did improve in three out of the four areas of assessment. In comparison to last year’s report, the Silver State improved in economic well-being, rising from 46th to 40th, as well as in health, moving from 46th to 40th, and lastly, in education, rising from 50th to 49th. Of the four domains, family and community category worsened from 43rd to 44th. Nevada continues to rank towards the bottom in education, and at least 39 other states fare better than Nevada in economic well-being and health.

Growing Poverty Can Dampen Impacts of Recent Education Reforms

 While Nevada made great strides in the span of a year, the indicators that worsened cannot be ignored, namely, the increase in the number of children living in poverty since the Great Recession and the increase in the number of children living in high-poverty areas.

An extensive body of research finds that income is a significant predictor of educational outcomes and student achievement. Children living in poverty tend to have more exposure to trauma and stress, which can affect “the way their minds and bodies develop and, significantly, the way they function in school.”

Additionally, children who live in poverty, and even more, live in high-poverty areas tend to hear a limited number of words and vocabulary in their homes and communities, making it difficult for them to acquire and expand their vocabulary. Being poor can affect a child’s health and well-being, language and literacy development, access to resources, and mobility. Access to healthcare and health related services are limited, leaving children vulnerable to disease, all of which affect a child’s physical and cognitive development. And, adequate levels of household financial assets are necessary to support a child’s overall academic success, such as appropriate daycare services, before or after school services, and school supplies (e.g., pencils, tablets, computers). Poverty often leads to families moving residences more frequently than their more affluent counterparts. Stable housing is critical for a child’s development and growth.

In 2015, the Nevada Legislature invested roughly $800 million (over the biennium) in new and expended education programs. Unfortunately, the increasing levels and concentration of poverty in our communities threatens to undermine the long-term impact of these investments in education. If economic well-being is an important indicator of educational outcomes and an increasing number of children are arriving at school without the resources they need to be successful, we may need to revise our expectations about the long term impact of these recent education investments.

Fortunately, there are a number of nonprofit organizations (e.g., Communities in Schools, Catholic Charities) working together to address the needs of our most under-resourced families. The Children’s Cabinet provides programs and resources to address the diverse needs of children and their families in our community. Project 150, a local nonprofit whose mission is to help disadvantaged and homeless youth, provides youth with access to free and affordable clothing and school supplies. Three Square, a local foodbank, provides countless meals for disadvantaged youth throughout Clark County during after school programming. Andson, Inc., another local nonprofit, whose mission is to teach financial literacy, partners with local libraries to provide tutoring for students throughout Clark County.

While there are many local organizations working together to address the issue of poverty, our political leaders and policymakers should explore ways to improve the overall economic security of our families in Nevada. Investing in early childhood care and head start programs is but one key to helping Nevadans. Fortunately, Nevada was the recipient of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Preschool Development Grants program in 2014. As stated, “These grant dollars will increase Nevada’s preschool population by 58 percent over four years, serving approximately 15 percent of the state’s four-year-old population living under 200 percent of federal poverty level.”

Additionally, the State must consider ways to increase the stock of affordable housing. A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that Nevada offered the lowest number number of affordable housing units in the country, a mere “17 for every batch of 100 extremely low income households.” Similarly, Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida were also at the bottom of metro areas, with “each offering only 15 affordable units” per 100 extremely low income households. In 2011, the greater Reno area had about 2,600 affordable homes; as of early 2016 there were only 200. Finally, our state and local policy makers must continue to explore ways to attract employers that create “livable wage jobs.”