The number of Florida's children living in poverty swelled 35 percent from 2006 to 2010 -- an increase that especially hurt black and Hispanic youth -- a new report shows.
Using the most recent statistics available, the report found that nearly one in every four Florida children, or about 924,000 collectively, now lives below the federal poverty line. Two-thirds of black children live in families classified as low-income, meaning they earn less than $44,100 a year for a family of four.
"It is not new that disparities exist," said Linda Alexionok, co-director of Voices for Florida, the nonpartisan group that issued the report, "The Well-Being of Florida's Children." "What is new is that disparities are more prevalent today than ever before, and growing. This report dispels the myth that a level playing field exists for all children."
Researchers said the report represents an "extensive" analysis of all available data measuring Florida children's well-being and is the most comprehensive picture to date. Alexionok said the information would be used not only to guide state policy, but also to create solutions through community involvement, private businesses and nonprofit agencies.
And though key findings may serve only to reinforce previous studies -- showing high teen-pregnancy rates among blacks and Hispanics, for instance, or the correlation between dropping out of high school and living in poverty -- Alexionok said the sheer magnitude of such problems was startling.
"The state of Florida has more than 4 million children," she said. "So when we start saying 25 percent, we're talking about a million children. And we don't think people realize that. There's a chain reaction that we want to draw attention to."
The numbers also tell a story about the difficulty of upward mobility.
Shantisha Smith, a black Osceola County ninth-grader, could be a poster child. She has lived with her parents and sister in a Kissimmee motel room for nearly three years since the family lost its two-story home. Health problems led to three major surgeries last fall, forcing her to continue her education online to keep from dropping out.
"It really is tough trying to learn by myself," the 15-year-old said. "I usually get it quick when there's actually a teacher there next to me. But when it's just on a computer, I miss something."
Her mother is disabled, and her father works two minimum-wage jobs to support his family. Shantisha worries about her future.
"I don't know how I'll make it," she said.
The fact that she has both her parents at home actually makes her better off than most of her peers. Two out of every three black children in Florida live in single-parent households -- almost double the rate of other kids.
Child-welfare advocates say that is both a result of, and a contributor to, the fact that the teen birth rate among non-Hispanic black girls is more than double the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Pregnant teens are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to attend college, meaning their own children are more likely to live in poverty.
For Ruth Patrick, president and CEO of Orlando's BETA Center, which works with pregnant teens and teen parents, the findings only reinforce what she sees every day. Pregnant girls who have dropped out of high school turn to her agency to break that cycle.
"What we give them are the tools to be able to change the pattern," Patrick said. "Here, they can get that high-school diploma and a supportive network that wants to see them succeed."
The report's authors and others insist the recession did not cause the disparities, though it did exacerbate them.
"The most vulnerable among us was hit the hardest," said Andrae Bailey, executive director of the Community Food & Outreach Center in Orlando. "The real story of the Great Recession is that we're creating a whole new class of our population that is chronically poor. Children will grow up in poverty and live in poverty and perpetuate poverty for the generation after them."
In the 70-page study, children of color were also lopsidedly affected by a range of other ills: They were more likely to be born prematurely or underweight or to die in infancy. For that and other reasons, 16 percent of Hispanic children and 18 percent of black children were classified as being at high-risk for developmental delays -- compared with 7 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
They also were less likely to have health care.
Across all age groups, 26 percent of blacks and 34 percent of Hispanics had no form of health insurance in 2010, while for whites the uninsured made up 19 percent.
Meanwhile, state funding for programs that might have aided children in poverty have been cut in recent years, the report found.
"Trickle-down does not work nearly as well as direct investment," said Cassandra Jenkins, chairwoman of Voices for Florida's Minority Issues Action Council. "Further erosion of government-supported programs will result in even more dire numbers."
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