The 3-week-old boy fidgeted quietly on his mother’s arm as nurse Felecia Richardson sat cross-legged on the floor in front of them.
“How’s he doing?” Richardson asked the mother at the start of another one-hour session with the new mother she’d been counseling for months.
The three were part of a nurse-family partnership for low-income, first-time mothers designed as one tool to help participants break the cycle of poverty. All the newborn’s health signs were good, Richardson was told, which was a testament to the partnership and a sign that the boy could have a healthier and more successful life than many others born into similar circumstances.
While the mother had all but quit smoking, gotten a two-year college certificate and moved in with the baby’s father during her pregnancy, the visits also likely will end up benefiting the child throughout his life.
“If the mothers improve in their health and lives, that will carry through to the baby,” Richardson said.
Without that foundation, the chance was more than good that the newborn would have ended up as another example of why South Carolina is ranked seventh from the bottom for underprivileged children, according to a new national study.
The statistic disappoints Horry County Schools Superintendent Cindy Elsberry, but she’ not surprised by it.
“We see the results of that every day,” said Elsberry of educating children raised in poverty.
The problems start even before the children get to school, as low-income homes don’t have the same preschool learning opportunities as higher income homes do. There may be no books around for parents to read to their children or the parent(s) may be working multiple jobs and not have the time to read, for instance, and there is nothing to make the child want to learn his or her ABCs or what “the” says.
That puts the school district in the position of having to catch them up beginning on their first day of school.
It doesn’t work.
Elsberry said that studies show that children who don’t have learning stimulations early in life never seem to catch up.
And in Horry County schools, the need is significant. Sixty-three percent of Horry schools’ 41,000 students live in poverty, Elsberry said.
The study by WalletHub, primarily a financial advice website, relied partly on Kids Count data to rank South Carolina as 45th for the percent of children in households with below-poverty income, 32nd in the percent of maltreated children, 41st in the child food insecurity rate, 42nd in the infant death rate and 39th for the percent of children without health insurance.
“We consistently rank in the bottom,” Sue Williams, CEO of Children’s Trust of South Carolina, said of the Kids Count statistics. “The highest South Carolina has ever been is 41st.”
Children’s Trust is a statewide nonprofit that focuses on the safety of children. But it is also the state’s recipient of the Kids Count data, so Williams knows the breadth of the poverty problem and the factors that play into it.
She said there are 25,000 families of three people in South Carolina living below the federal poverty level, $19,790 a year for a family of three.
“We have a million kids living in poverty,” Williams said. “How do you fix that?”
First, said Williams and Elsberry, you make dealing with the problems a societal focus and be ready to stick with it for at least a generation, which is about 30 years.
“Schools can’t do it all,” Williams said. “Neither can the service organizations. Together, maybe we can take a stab at it.”
Horry schools has zeroed in on literacy as the key missing element and has put reading interventionists in 48 of the district’s 52 schools. At about $60,000 a pop including benefits, that comes to nearly $2.9 million.
The school system further puts special programs in schools to stimulate the desire to learn.
Conway area schools, she said, focus on service learning and ensuring that every student has a significant adult in their lives. In Myrtle Beach, the schools aim students toward the seven habits of “the leader in me,” and even go so far as having students lead their own parent/student conferences.
Parents, she said, tend to be less defensive when their children ask them what they can do to help their kids with school than they do when the question comes from a teacher. Therefore, they think of the solutions rather than defending the lack of them.
Socastee and Aynor schools have International Baccalaureate programs that encourage students to be among the top performers academically so they can join in the prestigious coursework.
In Loris, students are aligned with McLeod Loris health to use medical-focused programs to direct students’ attention toward learning.
The Conway area service learning program, Elsberry said, leads to things such as students helping in the care of animals at shelters, which then reaps benefits for the schools and the students.
“It just changes things when they can reach out and make a difference,” she said.
Not just students
But it’s not just students who need and can benefit from programs designed to address the problems that come from poverty.
Williams said South Carolina is one of six states funded by the Rockefeller Foundation for a program called nurse-family partnership that’s administered by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Nurses in the program are assigned to monthly visits with low-income families where an expectant, first-time mother who has not yet reached her 26th week pregnancy. The visits can last for up to two years, but may end sooner as the family’s participation is voluntary.
What has happened, Williams said, is that for the people in the program, there are fewer health problems in the family, the mother will get a GED and become employed and there will be less child abuse and neglect.
In fact, Williams said that the program, now in its sixth year, already saves enough money to pay for itself. Better health means fewer healthcare visits most likely paid by Medicaid, less reliance on welfare programs and less need for law enforcement and social agency intervention where children are mistreated.
Williams said that the cost of attacking all the negatives associated with poverty can be daunting, but they can’t all be publicly funded.
“There’s not enough money to do that,” she said.
Williams talked about the power of social interest bonds as a significant funding mechanism.
She said that the startup of a program such as the nurse-family partnership would be funded by the government. Investors would be sought to pay ongoing costs and would be paid back through the savings produced by the program.
Government, too, she said, could restock its treasury with the savings.
The funding requires clear benchmarks for the program and frequent evaluation so it can be tweaked if something isn’t producing financially measurable results.
Horry better, worse than state
The Kids Count data from 2012 shows that Horry ranks better than the state average in some measurements and worse in others.
Horry, for instance, fares worse than the state average for the median income for a family with a child, children under 18 living in a home with no parent in the workforce and teens age 16 to 19 not in school and not working.
But it is noticeably better than the state average in the percentage of 3rd and 8th graders who rank at or above the state standard for math and reading and the percent of 10th graders passing all parts of an exit exam on the first try. On the other hand, it ranks worse than the state average in the percent of dropouts to total enrollment.
New Hampshire came out on top in the WalletHub study, followed by Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, respectively, in the top five.
Below South Carolina were, in descending order, Arizona, New Mexico, Arkansas, Florida, the District of Columbia and Mississippi.
Besides Kids Count, other sources WalletHub used were the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- Administration for Children and Families, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Educational Statistics, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Equality of Opportunity Project.
Elsberry said that a child who starts school at-risk remains at risk. She said that students from homes in poverty have less than half the vocabulary of those from other homes when they start school.
“The deficit just grows year after year,” she said.
Additionally, she said that research by the United Way shows that children from homes in poverty have learned only the flight or fight mechanism to deal with problems. That comes out in school interactions as well, creating yet another problem for educators and an additional hurdle to that student’s learning.
“We’ve got to break that cycle of poverty,” she said.
Richardson, the nurse, said the mother on the sofa in front of her is one of her stars because of the things she’s got going for her: the baby’s father in the house, a job to go to and her own transportation there and back.
So many of the women she sees in the partnership program don’t have either, which diminishes but doesn’t eliminate their chance for success and therefore their babies’ chances throughout life.
She finds that her visits seem to encourage the expectant and new mothers to strive to do right by themselves and for their babies.
“I had prepared my heart to hear horror stories,” she said of the time before she began the work last fall.
But she found instead that most of the mothers she sees do work and those who don’t are trying to find work and/or get in school.
“Keeping work is the biggest challenge,” Richardson said.
Without transportation and the necessary child care during work hours, maintaining a job is nearly impossible.
Williams said that kids raised in low-income families who then don’t do well in school tend to end up hanging out on corners where they can easily get into drug sales because it’s the only way they can help supplement the family’s income or get those things that every teenager or young adult wants.
To stop things such as that, she said that every member of society needs to see himself or herself as part of the greater good. If they can’t, they need to realize that children with problems become their own children’s problems through class disruptions, lack of individual teacher time and worse.
“At some point, we’ve got to say we’re a community,” Williams said, “and we want our community to be the best it can.”