The information wasn’t new, but pulled together it paints a startling picture of the roadblocks to successful, healthy lives that many Cowley County children face.
“We’ve got a problem,” said Brenda Butters, a Winfield city commissioner. “We’ve got to figure out some solutions.”
Butters was one of about 70 community leaders Tuesday night at the Burford Theatre who came face to face with some grim statistics about the quality of life of local children.
Organized by Legacy Foundation, the “Data Walk” event invited people from across the county to start a conversation — and hopefully a movement — to reverse the trends on a range of troubling realities:
• 17.8% of Cowley County children live below the federal poverty line, which is $23,030 for a family of four. (The statewide figure is 13.4%)
• 77.9% of children in poverty live in one-parent households.
• Black population has a 31.9% poverty rate.
• Latino population has a 21.2% poverty rate.
• Two or more races population has a 18% poverty rate.
• White population has a 3.1% poverty rate.
• 80% of third-graders have basic or limited math ability.
• 73.8% of third-graders have basic or limited reading ability.
• All five school districts in the county have a higher percentage of students on individual education plans (IEPs) than Kansas overall.
• 4 in 10 students (middle and high school levels) show signs of depression.
• 1 in 4 students (middle and high school levels) has made a suicide plan.
• There are 31-40 children younger than age 3 for each childcare opening.
• Families with one child younger than age 3 spent 11.9% of their income on average for childcare.
• 1 in 5 children are food insecure, well above statewide levels (limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally-adequate foods).
• One-third of renters do not have affordable housing (spending no more than 30% of gross income on housing costs, including utilities).
• Lead paint use was banned from homes in 1978, but nearly three-fourths of houses in the county were built before 1979.
• Concentrated neighborhoods with high levels of low income, poor housing quality, low employment and low education levels include north-central Winfield (95% deprivation index); and southern Arkansas City (99% deprivation index).
Yazmin Wood, director of Legacy, said the data was taken from public sources, such as the U.S. Census, and vetted by the Kansas Health Institute.
Participants on Tuesday first watched a documentary video with interviews from local experts. Lindsey Wilke, USD 470 early literacy grant coordinator and Legacy board chair, said Cowley County is very good at reacting to immediate needs of people in poverty, but not as focused on addressing the underlying root causes.
“I feel like I don’t hear as much of that happening,” she says in the video, which can be viewed from legacyregionalfoundation.org.
Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, emceed the event. He said the biggest indicators of one’s health is economic status and education level.
He urged participants to keep an open mind as they interpreted the information.
“The point of tonight is to push yourself and one another to consider multiple interpretations of the data,” O’Malley said. “So don’t come up to one of these banners and feel like you have a position to defend.”
People were invited to share thoughts midway through studying the banners and at the end.
Butters said the problems seem overwhelming and sad, but that poverty underlies many of the issues.
“If we fix that, that helps all the others areas,” she said.
Pastor Charles McKenzie said actions need to focus on broad concerns of justice rather than just individual acts of mercy.
“We’re seeing that these are giant problems that will take way more than just small band-aid solutions,” he said.
Legacy Foundation board member Alex Gottlob urged the crowd to spread the word.
“It’s really important that we take this to others, tomorrow at our jobs, tonight when you get home and talk to your spouse,” he said. “The awareness is part of it.”
Former legislator Anita Judd-Jenkins said building trust with struggling families is hard. Judd-Jenkins also led the Census counting effort in Ark City in 2020.
“Their resistance to allow us into their lives has been the greatest challenge, I have found,” she said.
Judge Nick St. Peter said the issues seem interlaced, so its hard to know which is primary.
“What problem do you attack first to effectively change each of those?” he wondered.
Public Health Director Thomas Langer said he was encouraged by the number of attendees who craft policy.
“I hope they go back to their respective jobs, elected position, and the next time something comes up … ask yourself what impact on the health of the citizens of Cowley County will this have?,” he said.
Judd-Jenkins said she would like to see a second gathering that included overlays of programs currently available.
O’Malley challenged each audience member to commit to an experiment — not so much to solve a problem but to learn — in one of the areas. It will take more than just the people in the room to change outcomes, he added.
“I don’t think we can master plan our way to progress,” he said. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about that, (but) my experience is you actually need a movement.”
Wood said Tuesday’s event is meant to be a catalyst and that Legacy plans to hold more Data Walks.
Putting troubling information out front is not meant to alarm, she said, but “to say we know this, and we can do better, and we can do better together.”
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