Of Hall County’s more than 33,000 people living in poverty, about 42 percent of them are children.
That’s about 14,000 children whose lives likely lack stability and security as their identities begin to take shape.
Local officials who work with children say the lack of stability in a family living at or below the poverty line can challenge children in a variety of areas including mental and physical health, school performance, behavior and self-esteem.
“What we know is children need stability in order to thrive,” said Kristen Green, an assistant professor of psychology at Brenau University and a certified clinical child and adolescent psychologist.
“(With poverty) there’s lots of instability,” Green added. “There’s instability with respect to housing, ‘Am I going to have a place to sleep tonight?’ Or instability in terms of food, ‘Am I going to be able to get a meal?’ ... There’s instability with respect to family stability. Mom and dad are at each other’s throats because they’re stressed about money ... ‘Who am I going to be with? Where am I going to be?’”
Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Lindsay Burton said she sees issues of instability in cases that come before her bench.
“I definitely think the instability that poverty causes creates consequences sometimes for parents and children in regards to children being charged with things like truancy,” Burton said. “We have some great parents that come through court and it’s not that they don’t want to send their child to school every day, but when their housing becomes challenging and they don’t have a stable place to live or if there’s not reliable transportation to get to their registered school in the morning, they’re not going; that’s not an excused absence. I think it’s just the stress that children endure from not knowing where they’re going to sleep that night. … And we’re expecting these children to put on a smile and go learn the next day. It’s pretty darn challenging.”
Burton said she and other judges “don’t remove children from their parents simply based on poverty alone,” but poverty can be an issue when it is time to consider putting the children back in that home.
“The court still needs to find that they have an appropriate place to live with the child,” she said. “When it is difficult for parents to find stable, low-income housing, it can delay reunification. That means that children stay in foster care longer.”
Burton said juvenile court judges locally often refer families to the United Way of Hall County’s Compass Center, a one-stop shop that gives families information on organizations providing services that could help parents who are struggling.
“The Compass Center can assist in tracking down (needs), whether it is employment or rent assistance or just any leads on some reasonable housing,” she said.
Ursula Harris, a social worker with the Gainesville City School System, said poverty causes trauma in the lives of some students.
“So, if you’re living in poverty and you’re living in a state of trauma — and this is not all children in poverty — you may be coming to school hungry, even though we do have breakfast,” Harris said. “Depending on what happened the night before and whether you got enough sleep, you may act out. Your reactions to the directions from the teacher could be different.”
Harris said the effects of poverty can be seen in a variety of areas with children.
“When they’re coming to us, they could be two and three years behind those children who were in a preschool program. We have Head Start here, but Head Start doesn’t have transportation. For those children who really need it the most, they may not have access to it.”
Just getting homework completed can be difficult for some children, according to Harris.
“If I don’t have internet (at home), sometimes I’m not able to do my homework,” she said as an example. “Having books in the home may not be the norm. All those things that we as middle class individuals kind of take for granted, when you’re a child in poverty, those things may not be available to you.
“If my parents are always working two and three jobs to try to meet the basic minimum needs, then there’s nobody at home talking to me,” Harris added. “We’re not sitting around the table. Those are things that really mold children that children in poverty sometimes miss. It’s not all of them, but a great number.”
Harris said there are also health concerns.
“If I’m not eating right, if I’m not sleeping right, that’s going to affect my health,” she said. “If I’m sick a lot, then I’m going to be missing days from school. Children in poverty have more illnesses. Their rates of asthma are higher; they get more colds in the winter time, so naturally they’re out more.”
Brandee Thomas, executive director at My Sister’s Place in Gainesville, said structure is important for children who come with their mom to live at the women’s shelter.
“The families that we’re dealing with are in transition, so many of them are coming from very unstable environments,” Thomas said. “Moms aren’t able to provide structure during that transition period. Sometimes there’s an adjustment period where they’re getting back in the habit of having routines — dinner times, bedtimes, homework times, those sorts of things. So that can be a challenge.
“Here we are a structured program,” she added. “We obviously let the parents parent, but we provide a general framework. Dinner is served at 5:30 (p.m.). We have an everybody curfew at 9 (p.m.), so everyone has to be on-site by then. Quiet time is from 10:30 p.m. until 7:30 a.m., so they sort of build their own routines within that.”
Lindsey McCamy, executive director of Family Promise, another residential program for homeless families, said the structure of school can be stabilizing.
“I think, for the school-age children, we see a lot of social and physical developmental delays, just communication, conversational skills, those kind of things, especially if they’ve never been in school,” she said. “A lot of times, our families come and there might have been a gap in the time they have been in school, so that’s always kind of hard to get back into that structure. But what we do see is once they do get back into school, they actually start to thrive in the school environment just because of the structure.”
Green said children in poverty often experience some type of family trauma, including abuse and neglect.
“We do see in families that are living at the poverty level, there are more families struggling with things like divorce and family violence,” Green said. “So, children in homes that are living at or below the poverty level have been exposed to some kind of trauma, whether that is family violence inside their home, whether it’s something within the community — community violence.
“The effects of poverty are cumulative …” she added. “Children are resilient, but they’re not just going to necessarily bounce back quickly from that kind of thing. If they’re impacted at one point in their development, it could hinder them for a long time after whatever that thing is has ended.”
Green added that children in poverty are “more prone to experience shame.”
“Shame is a very self-harming emotion, and it’s very self-damning,” she said. “So, it can have a very significant impact on self-esteem. If you’ve got low self-esteem, you’re not going to have much faith in your ability to rise above the circumstances into which you were born.”
Harris said it is important that educators are paying attention to what is going on in a student’s life.
“We have to be sensitive to that and make sure we know what’s going on with children so that we know how to redirect them and how to best meet their needs,” Harris said. “Even when we’re talking about a behavior issue, make sure we’re not overly suspending, making sure our discipline measures are equitable and fair.”