While Ohio may be seeing economic recovery, the rate of the state’s children living in poverty still outpaces the national rate. The organization behind a new report says its “a call to everyone” to address these issues.

Nearly one-quarter of Ohio’s children live in poverty, according to the Ohio’s KidsCount: 2013 Data Book, an annual compilation of data that provides yearly snapshots of the well-being of Ohio’s children. In Athens County, it’s higher, at nearly 32 percent.

“We’d like to see policy makers at all levels, as well as our local leaders and business people, address these issues,” said Dawn Wallace-Pascoe, the KidsCount project manager. “The community at large needs to spend time focusing on what we can do to reduce child poverty.”

For the past several years, the percentage of children in poverty has continued to rise despite improving economic conditions, states the report. In 2007, 18 percent of Ohio’s children lived in poverty. In 2011, the most recent data available, it was 23.9. Ohio’s Appalachian and metropolitan areas have the highest rates of child poverty at 27.3 percent and 26.9 percent, respectively.

Economic recovery might suggest the opposite effect, but one must look at the types of jobs that are “coming back,” said Nick Claussen, spokesman for the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. Many of those jobs, at least in Athens County, are low-paying, he added.

Claussen said he has a few ideas to help those families get out of poverty.

“We’d like to see an increase in cash assistance and more funding for housing — those are the types of things that provide more stability for a family,” Claussen said. “It’d be nice to see Medicaid expanded; that would help keep parents healthy, which would keep them working and healthy for their kids.”

Nearly five percent of the county’s uninsured 19- to 64-year-olds are projected to enroll in Medicaid, if it’s expanded, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio.

Claussen said he fears the situation might get worse in the county. Food assistance, also known as food stamps, were cut earlier this year and may be cut again in October, he said.

This year’s KidsCount report emphasizes early childhood education indicators. It shows economic security and race play important roles in determining how often a child is ready for kindergarten.

Based on the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment-Literacy (KRAL), a test given to every child entering kindergarten in public school, the report found clear disparities in kindergarten readiness when considering economic disadvantage, race and Hispanic ethnicity.

A higher percentage of children considered to be economically disadvantaged (30 percent) placed in the lowest level compared to more well-off children (11 percent), states the report.

At Federal Hocking Local Schools and Trimble Local Schools, 64 percent of students live in poverty, the highest rates in the county, according to the Ohio Department of Education. While poverty itself doesn’t leave young children struggling upon entering kindergarten, Federal Hocking Supt. George Wood said it does bring on its own set of challenges.

“Often in poor families, the parents are working odd hours, or they may not have resources or educational games or even books at home,” Wood said.

Trimble Supt. Kim Jones added that economic insecurity leads to stressors that distract children from studies. It can also mean a high rate of transience, which for children equates to midyear school changes and absenteeism.

“On average, our students are entering school about 18 months or so behind the national norm for school readiness,” Jones added.

While a teacher can help a child make up that deficit, she continued, it’s not uncommon for some children to still be behind.

Wood added that as a school, “you have to have a really good understanding of what ability kids come in with and how to make up some of those things missing in a child’s environment,” he added.

Teachers often do that in partnership with the parents. A program implemented last year at Federal Hocking, called the Welcome Wagon, sends volunteers to a child’s home to provide extra support and give away age-appropriate books.

“(Those children) may suffer a deficit, but that deficit can be made up when you’re sensitive to it,” he added.

At the same time, Athens County schools graduates students at a higher rate than the state. Athens County graduates 95.8 percent of its students on time; the state average is 84.3 percent.

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asmedley@athensmessenger.com; Twitter @ariansmessenger

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