"It’s mostly good news for Warwick,” said Stephanie Geller, policy analyst for Rhode Island Kids Count, a children’s policy and advocacy organization. Yesterday, Geller broke down data and pinpointed trends in Warwick regarding the city’s youth, presenting the information to city officials and advocates from child welfare agencies.
Though most of the data showed positive trends, some areas, like teen pregnancy, prenatal care and the city’s lack of full-day kindergarten, showed negative trends.
The topic of full-day kindergarten sparked a discussion among school officials present at Geller’s presentation at the Warwick Public Library.
“We would love to have full-day kindergarten,” said Robert Bushell, director of elementary education for Warwick Public Schools. “But it’s $5.2 million.”
Bushell said the $5.2 million figure is what he would need to run 19 new classrooms with appropriate supplies and teaching staff.
Geller pointed to a bill passed by the General Assembly that would help municipalities fund full-day K programs; she urged those present to push the legislature to allocate some of the money to Warwick. Still, even with the Assembly’s help, Acting Superintendent Richard D’Agostino said the full-day K would be a highly expensive endeavor for the city.
Geller suggested the city look at the schools that demonstrate the lowest reading proficiency levels in fourth grade, and create full-day K programs at those schools first.
In addition to the issue of kindergarten, D’Agostino said he was most concerned about homeless children. Without a stable home to return to each night, children can’t master what’s presented to them in the classroom.
In 2011, 25 Warwick children took up residence in shelters, and 82 children were identified by the Warwick school system as being homeless (i.e. without permanent residence).
“Not surprisingly, children in single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty,” said Geller, who pointed out that data shows they are six times more likely.
The number of children living in poverty has grown since 2000 from 6.7 percent to just over 8 percent. Poverty level in 2011 was roughly $18,000 for a family of three or $22,000 for a family of four. According to the 2012 Rhode Island Standard of Need, a single parent and two young children would need about $48,500 to afford all basic living expenses.
“Although people have a lot less money in their pockets … the cost of rent hasn’t gone down,” said Geller.
An ongoing problem is the gap between affordable housing and average income, since rent rates in Warwick and the rest of the state have plateaued at a rate that’s still unaffordable for most working minimum wage jobs.
Despite the recession and a steady need of assistance, the number of families receiving cash assistance in Rhode Island has seen a sharp decline since 1996. Geller said new regulations that went into place in 2008, that limit the amount of time a family can receive cash assistance, are the cause of the decline, despite the regulation’s poor timing. Geller said the state legislature is looking into ways to potentially adjust the limits on aid.
From 2010 to 2011, the state saw the first increase in the number of families receiving state aid, which Geller attributes to their ability to prove to the state that they have sought employment to no avail, or have extraneous circumstances that allow for an extension of cash assistance. This “hardship extension” is capped when 20 percent of children on cash assistance are on an extended plan; Geller said they currently have 19.5 percent enrollment.
Geller said the state hasn’t paid cash assistance for three years, and the program has been entirely federally funded. In fact, this year there is a bit of federal money left over, but Geller said it will be spent.
Though cash assistance has seen a downward trend, the number of children in the SNAP program has sharply increased since 2008.
Although Warwick’s trends were mainly positive and typically better than statewide data, Geller said the one problem that she sees with Warwick is the number of women receiving delayed prenatal care. The number of women who received delayed prenatal care from 2001 to 2005 was 6.5 percent, a number that nearly doubled to 12 percent from 2006 to 2010.
“More and more women are going without prenatal care,” said Geller. “It’s a trend we should be paying attention to.”
Another area that Warwick showed negative trends was in teen births for mothers 18 to 19 years of age. Warwick’s teen birth rate for that age bracket was 7 percent higher than the statewide average, though the total teen birthrate (ages 15 to 17) was lower. From 2006 to 2010, 11 percent of the 237 teen births were repeat teen births.
“It’s been a continuing trend for Warwick,” said Geller of the slightly higher teen birth rate. Though she said it’s easy to educate teens still of school age, reaching out to teens 18 to 19 is more challenging, and is an area to focus on.
Geller said data shows that boys born to teen mothers are more likely to turn to crime when older and girls will likely repeat the teen mom cycle.
Geller identified 13 children born in Warwick in 2011 to young, unmarried mothers who failed to complete high school. These three things, said Geller, have been identified to put children born to these mothers at risk. Thirteen children were born to such mothers in Warwick in 2011.
“Thirteen is a really small number we can get our arms around,” said Geller, who was careful not to gloss over even marginal areas of trouble.
Although Geller drilled down into specifics, the general trends among the youth population of the city have undergone some major changes, too. From 2000 to 2010, Warwick saw a 16 percent decrease in its number of children. As the population decreased, diversity increased, and the number of white children fell from 92 to 84 percent.
After the presentation, Colonel Stephen McCartney, chief of Warwick Police, said that most of the trends looked positive, though the homelessness data was “alarming.” Still, McCartney said advocates and officials must look at the big picture and prepare for what’s next.
“We have to wait and see what the future holds,” he said.