Poverty persists through generations

Schools, community agencies combine to help local families break the cycle of poverty

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



Deeper information

Study of the cycle by Donna Beegle, a Tigard, Ore., consultant on poverty issues who emerged from intergenerational poverty herself.

photoClark County poverty by the numbers. Click to enlarge.
photoClark County poverty by gender. Click to enlarge.
photoClark County compared to the rest of Washington. Click to enlarge.
photoPoverty as correlated with education. Click to enlarge.
photoClark County poverty as a function of race. Click to enlarge.
photoSources of Clark County poverty data. Click to enlarge.

Poverty in Clark County

What is the poverty line?

The government definition of poverty is lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health.

The U.S. Census Bureau annually sets “poverty thresholds” for numerous family types and situations, based on income and the consumer price index; this defines who is and isn’t living in poverty and is largely a statistical yardstick. The threshold does not account for geographic variations.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sets simplified “poverty guidelines,” which are used for administrative purposes — like eligibility for government benefits.

Poverty line as a function of family size in Clark County, 2014 guidelines

1 person: $11,490

2 people: 15,510

3 people: 19,530

4 people: 23,550

5 people: 27,570

6 people: 31,590

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Grants spread to multiple local agencies

The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington recently won a $700,000 Gates Foundation grant across four years in an innovative effort to interrupt the cycle of “intergenerational poverty” and reorient young people and families toward success. The Community Foundation also bundled its own discretionary funds into larger-than-usual chunks and granted it to local organizations working on the same problem.

The first round of grantees in this initiative:

• Support for Early Learning and Families (SELF): $119,000 from the Gates Foundation for planning a comprehensive Clark County strategy to attack intergenerational poverty.

• Lower Columbia College Head Start, Cowlitz County: $29,000 from Gates for direct early childhood education.

• Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools: $27,500 for family resource centers at 11 schools.

• Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest: $25,000 for high school dropout prevention.

• Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington: $25,000 for programs at Fruit Valley and Washington elementary schools.

• Children’s Center: $25,000 for mental health case manager at Mountain View High School.

• Partners in Careers: $25,000 for employment training for high school seniors.

• Share Vancouver: $25,000 for hunger response programs.

• Sea Mar Community Health Center: $21,000 for infant case management for at-risk families.

• Second Step Housing: $23,723 for Nurturing Parent Program for at-risk families.

• Bridgeview Housing (Vancouver Housing Authority): $11,300 for early education advocacy for children in subsidized housing.

The total is $356,000 — so far. Jennifer Rhoads, president of the Community Foundation, said the agency is just tearing into grant applications for the second round.

“We are talking about long-term systems change,” Rhoads said. “We’re not going to disrupt the cycle of poverty immediately. We may not have measurable results for years. The Gates people, they’re patient.”

Onika Estrada has a few ambitions: doctor, lawyer, movie director, author. Or maybe just president of the United States. Her younger brother, Elias, has his sights firmly set on playing pro baseball.

The Estrada kids, ages 10 and 9, respectively, might just make it all the way to those big dreams. You never can tell.

Or can you? Maybe the deck is so stacked against the Estradas that they'll always stay more or less in place. That means living in Rose Village, where they attend one of Vancouver' statistically lowest-achieving elementary schools. Average income is low and the crime rate is high. Many families speak Spanish at home. The kids' father, Miguel, is a native of Mexico who came to this country illegally but now works above board as a laborer and construction worker. He is making slow progress up the pay ladder — and using unpaid winter downtime to build his skills and improve his written English. Mother Crystal is a caretaker for elderly people. She'd like to finish her associate degree at Clark College, but she's too busy working and mothering at the moment.

"We're living paycheck to paycheck right now," Crystal said. "We moved to this area because it was a good deal. It wasn't really by choice."

Clearly, there are factors in the Estrada kids' favor. Their modest parents believe in hard work and education. The kids know they need to go to college, not only to develop the chops required to lead the free world, but even to swing a bat at a ball before stadiums full of fans.

Here's another factor in the Estradas' favor: A new Boys & Girls Club recently took up residence at Washington Elementary School. It costs only $30 to join for a year. Without it, Crystal said, the kids would spend too much time home alone, and maybe get mixed up in the kind of trouble that unsupervised kids in this neighborhood too often fall into — or run from. Instead, they are finishing up their homework and building their social and athletic skills — all the while surrounded by colorful college pennants that border the cafeteria, beckoning all these kids toward a brighter future.

"In the last couple of years, we've really tried to create a college-going environment," said Elise Menashe, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington.

The club is one example of many new or expanded Clark County programs aimed at children and families who are stuck in what experts call the cycle of "intergenerational poverty."

That means poverty that's pervasive and self-replicating. It's not caused by unexpected crises such as layoff or foreclosure, divorce or health emergency. It's a culture of low expectations and low self-esteem — and something that parents naturally pass on to their children.

Local cycle-breaking initiatives were sparked by a big grant from the world's wealthiest philanthropic foundation, just up Interstate 5 from here. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, recently settled on intergenerational poverty as a significant and persistent social ill, and granted $5 million to nine Pacific Northwest grantors who are redistributing the money to community agencies best positioned to attack the problem.

Here in Clark County, that local grantor is the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, which was given $700,000 to dole out over four years; it also added its own discretionary dollars to the mix. It convened a committee, studied the problem and decided on an "upstream" approach, emphasizing early childhood education above all else.

"Education, education, education," said Menashe. "More than anything, that's what changes the cycle of poverty."

Sense of SELF

"Research shows that when kids enter school behind, they stay behind," said Debbie Ham, the director of grantee Support for Early Learning and Families, a homegrown Clark County nonprofit. SELF won the biggest chunk of money from the Community Foundation — $119,000 — and is preparing for a huge, in-depth strategy session among dozens of local stakeholders in this issue in the spring. By July, she said, SELF should be ready to unveil an agreed-upon community agenda for attacking chronic poverty through early childhood education.

That mirrors discussions and initiatives that are happening across the nation, she said. The United Way in Portland also received $700,000 from Gates.

"How do you approach big social problems and begin to effect social change?" Ham said. "What are the things that make the most difference? We don't know yet. We need to rigorously measure progress over time.

"What we do know is that there's a critical window, age birth to 5, that's the most rapid period of brain growth. It lays the structural foundation in our brain. Opportunities and activities at that age make a huge difference. The more stressors and trauma in the family, it has a really big impact on the developing brain and the ability to learn and be successful," she said.

The personal and cultural repercussions of that disadvantage can be profound and lifelong. Donna Beegle, a Tigard, Ore., consultant on poverty issues who emerged from intergenerational poverty herself, wrote in a 2003 study: "From birth, children from generational poverty learn that their families are not 'normal,' but rather that they are deficient because they do not have the 'right' appearance, food, house, job or communication style. Such messages place blame on those in poverty and reinforce their alienation from middle-class society."

Community schools

Early childhood education often means whole family education, experts say, because children don't value learning unless parents set the example. And parents who never had that example may have a lot of learning — and perhaps some attitude adjustment — to do themselves.

"A lot of these parents didn't exactly have great experiences in school when they were children," said Jennifer Blechschmidt, administrator for early learning at Vancouver Public Schools.

That's why the Vancouver district has emphasized turning 13 of its schools, located in low-income neighborhoods, into what it calls Family-Community Resource Centers. It wants to transform the whole idea of what school is and what it — to families. Parents used to seeing school as a strict, scary place — or just a warehouse and waste of time — now will find a cornucopia of after-school offerings such as yoga and fitness classes, lending libraries and book clubs, Latino moms' groups and English conversation circles, résumé-building and job-hunting help and connections with social services — even access to computers and telephones for families who can't afford them at home and emergency food for families in real trouble.

"We're trying to make these community schools a hub for parents and families," said Blechschmidt. "We're trying to remove the barriers, the scary parts, whatever makes school seem like 'a big bad institution' and less like home. Parents' lives are already overstressed, just trying to survive. We are trying to be very intentional about building supports."

"There are so many programs and services out there," said Rhona Sen Hoss, executive director for the charitable Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools. "This brings them into our schools and makes it one-stop shopping."

Learning the basics

Education is more than a bunch of facts you learn or skills you master. It's a mind-set, a sense of forward momentum that's at least somewhat self-propelled. Some absorb that mind-set easily because it's an essential fact of their childhood — it's just there in the air — while others learn to cope with life's challenges at only the most minimal level.

That's what Debbie Dover, the executive director of Second Step Housing, calls "a lifestyle of stress." It's an endless game of Whack-a-Mole, with no real sense of how to change the game. Poverty experts like to talk about helping people counteract that by developing "executive function" — a bigger picture view of life and an overall sense of competency in managing it. Second Step, a nonprofit agency that caters largely to homeless women and their families, years ago launched a Nurturing Parent Program for "at-risk families" who are beset by any number of problems, from domestic violence to addiction. The program is open to community referrals as well as Second Step residents trying to reboot their own behaviors and lead their families toward better lives.

The Nurturing Parent Program is a 12-week class that builds parental self-awareness, as well as appropriate expectations about the different stages of children's physical and emotional development. When The Columbian sat in on a class, conversation centered on the sorts of real-world situations that any parents — regardless of income — must puzzle through. Like encouraging children to use their words instead of their fists. Like negotiating some consistency out of the different child-rearing styles of divorced parents. Like figuring out appropriate consequences for different sorts of infractions at different ages and stages.

Even like enjoying some family-style dinner conversation. Yes, Second Step pauses the heavy discussions to rehearse even the most basic family scenario: breaking bread together in polite, civilized fashion.

"Some of them have never sat down to a meal with their own kids before," Second Step case manager Valerie Norris said.


It'll be a happy birthday indeed for hundreds of children, birth through age 5, who benefit from housing assistance from the Vancouver Housing Authority, which provides public housing and housing subsidies. Each one will receive a birthday present in the mail: an education packet from Janiece Michael-Schroeder and Chulina Wheeler, single moms who receive the same housing subsidies and who were hired last year to work, 20 hours per month, as early education advocates for VHA families.

Wheeler and Michael-Schroeder have made hundreds of cold calls to all those families, alerting them to the many educational resources available in the community. Last month, they made a short video with an overview of that information that's now playing on screens at VHA headquarters and at VHA's Rise & Stars Community Center. They've met with local kindergarten teachers to find out what incoming students ought to know in order to succeed, then assembled their own 16-page packets to help VHA kids master those basics.

It's both information and skills: Familiarity with letters, numbers and colors, as well as the ability to sit still, listen attentively and follow directions. "It's fun, it's free, it will support your children as they get ready for school," Wheeler says in the video. The two are also planning three educational family nights that will be held at Rise & Stars later this year. One will be aimed specifically at parents who don't speak English.

"Every family wants the best for their children, but every family's experience is molded by what they've known," said VHA resident services director Jan Wichert. "If your parents didn't finish high school, you may not grow up with any idea about graduating high school and going to college. So, let's help folks know."

But how? A school district form letter written in educational gobbledygook may get scorned and tossed, even if it's welcoming families to the fold and offering early childhood education options, Wichert said. But a phone call or personal visit from a fellow VHA resident is more likely to get a positive reaction, she said. VHA has already learned that lesson with a previous grant that led to the hiring of four part-time health advocates.

"Putting a face on a program makes all the difference," said VHA family resource coordinator Sharon Linn.

Strapped families

The ongoing tough times we live in — with the economy still dragging and middle-class jobs hard to find — means that "executive function" is no automatic ticket to First Class.

Take another look at the Estradas, who appear to be doing everything they can to get ahead. Miguel, when he's working, earns $18 an hour as a laborer and construction worker. He's hoping to double that at some point through training and education; meanwhile he's sometimes wistful about the mellower life he left behind in Mexico. "You can have everything here, but you have to work very hard," he said.

Crystal, who has been working the same care-taking job since 2001, earns only $13.21 per hour. Some of that hard-earned money has already paid for a stress-management class, she said.

Take another look at Michael-Schroeder and Wheeler. Both had to step away from work due to family upheaval and children with special needs. That's how they both landed in subsidized housing, they said. Before that, Wheeler was an assistant at Franklin Elementary School and Michael-Schroeder ran a shelter for homeless families.

Michael-Schroeder bristled at the suggestion that low-income people don't understand the value of education. When they were making those cold calls to VHA families, she said, the reaction was mostly "delighted;" occasionally there was anger and frustration at schools and school systems. Sometimes the calls resulted in children attempting to translate the message into Spanish or Russian for their parents.

"Poor people are not lazy. Poor people want to work. You're talking about people who are emotionally and financially strapped," she said. "A middle-class family has more resources to cope. For lower-income people, the barriers are so much higher."

VHA's Linn said: "We know why education is important. Everybody knows why education is important. There's lots of information about why. But there isn't a lot of information about how."

"If I had had contact with people like us, back then, I would be so much further along now," said Wheeler. "At the time, I was stumped."