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Combating Childhood Poverty in Mississippi

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This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children's U.S. Programs and Julianne Moore. To learn more go to SaveTheChildren.org.

Mississippians, know poverty far too well. While nationally nearly one in four children lives in poverty, in Mississippi, one child in every three struggles to survive at or below the poverty level. This impacts our children at home, in school, and in their neighborhoods and communities. Negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care and quality child care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools can all be linked to poverty. Each has a horrible impact on our children.

Children who live in poverty are at greater risk of poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. The adverse impact poverty has on academic outcomes of children is especially evident during early childhood. Also, the fact that a child lives in poverty has been shown to cause stress, which impairs concentration, memory and impacts a child's ability to learn.

A recent report released by the Southern Education Foundation indicated that twelve of the twenty-five school districts with the highest rates of extreme child poverty were in the South; four of these counties were in Mississippi. This coincides with the data released by the Population Reference Bureau that identified the one hundred counties with the highest child poverty rates in 2005. Nearly three-fourths of the counties were in the rural South. Mississippi had the greatest number of counties with high child poverty rates. Of the one hundred counties listed, seventeen were in Mississippi.

We believe that education is the key equalizer to children achieving their potential. A lack of education contributes to an undertrained and unprepared workforce which can lead to poverty and dependence. Save the Children information states that four year olds from families affected by poverty are eighteen months behind other four year olds developmentally. These are a few of the reasons we at the Mississippi Attorney General's Office partnered with Save the Children to make a difference in the lives of young people at the most vulnerable stage of their learning process.

The Save the Children literacy program provides the training, tools, and support that schools need to accelerate reading growth for struggling readers in kindergarten through sixth grade. The centerpiece of the program is the after-school and summer literacy program. The hour long program consists of activities that support improved reading achievement, including guided independent reading practice, fluency-building support and listening to books read aloud. In addition, staff members work with children during the school day to provide tutorials in phonics, sight word growth, comprehension and vocabulary enhancement.

During 2010-2011, the Save the Children literacy program served more than 6,600 children in seventeen schools located throughout ten counties in Mississippi. Since partnering with Save the Children, the number of children reading at or above grade level increased by 85%. Prior to the program, 88% of the children tested for the program scored below grade level. In addition to the literacy program, schools are also involved with the CHANGE (Creating Healthy, Active, and Nurturing Growing-up Environments) program. CHANGE aims to increase access to regular activity and healthy snacks for children for children who live in rural areas and are in the after-school program.

Education is our path leading out of poverty. Sadly, the Mississippi Department of Education reported that the dropout rate for the Class of 2010 was 17%. Annually in Mississippi, approximately 14,079 high school students drop out of school. Nearly, 78% of our public school fourth graders cannot read at grade level nor do math at grade level. By fourth grade, if a child cannot read at grade level, research indicates that they are unlikely to ever catch up. In Mississippi, nearly 81% of public school eighth graders cannot read at grade level and 85% of public school eighth graders cannot do math at grade level.

While the statistics may seem bleak, we actively seek to work with other Mississippi state agencies to pool resources to enhance both our educational system as well as the critical social support systems that have a direct connection to each child's opportunity to succeed. Agencies with whom we partner and work include the Departments of Education, Mental Health, Health, and Human Services. We also work with faith-based and community-based agencies such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, YMCAs, Adolescent Opportunity Programs, and others.

We are thankful that Save the Children joined the fight for our children in Mississippi. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Save the Children's emergency preparedness and response programs were implemented quickly, and we will forever be grateful. An investment in the life, health and education of our children, is an investment that will yield exponentially high returns for our communities and our nation as a whole.