Ticonderoga Cub Scout Pack 72 recently purchased for toys for the Tiny Tim Christmas Wish Program. The boys picked out and purchased over $110 in toys to be donated to the Tiny Tim program, which serves needy children in the community. Increasing childhood poverty in the region is streesing services such as Tiny Tim.
One of every five local children is living in poverty this Christmas.
“These numbers are staggering,” said Margaret Beuerlein, director of the Ticonderoga Food pantry. “So sad.”
Overall, 13 percent of Essex County residents live in poverty, according to the government.
Essex County is near the national average — 19.8 percent — in childhood poverty. The county is slightly better than the state average of 20 percent. All of those numbers have increased in the past five years.
Poverty is defined by the federal government based on income and household size. A family of four earning $22,113 or less a year meets the poverty threshold. The income level rises to $26,023 for a family of five and so on.
According to the Census, 16.4 million children now live in poverty in the United States. That’s 22 percent of all American children, the highest percentage since 1959.
The statistics are no surprise for those who work with families and children.
“Having worked as a geriatric protective service social worker for 20 years, I’ve about seen it all,” said the Rev. David Hirtle, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Crown Point. “I have observed that the poverty in this area is deeper and more entrenched than I have previously seen. Further, because of this, many of the families in this area go unnoticed...they are invisible because they have been in this situation for such a long time.
“This is a tragic truth of this area — we are invisible to to the powers that be because of our poverty,” he said. “After all, money talks. Take a look at the percentage of children in Crown Point who qualify for the school meal program. I rest my case.”
More than half, 56.6 percent, of Crown Point Central School students received free or reduced lunches through the federal school lunch program. That’s an increase of 5 percent from last year.
Shari Brannock, Crown Point school superintendent, said poverty is more than an economic issue — its an educational one.
“We all know that childhood poverty deeply impacts the education process,” she said. “A child’s lack of having their basic needs met interferes daily with their ability to learn.”
At Moriah Central School, 71 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
“This number has increased every year over the last five years,” said Bill Larrow, Moriah school superintendent. “As for education, I do believe childhood poverty does impact the educational process. Many parents are now working multiple jobs to get by. Time that was once devoted to the educational process at home between parents and students is now limited due to the number of hours many parents are forced to work.”
While many associate poverty with unemployment, that’s not always the case.
Working families now account for many of the people utilizing the Ti food pantry, Beuerlein said. In October the Ti pantry served 79 families. In November that number was 123 families, 219 people.
“As we all know, things keep costing more all of the time, but incomes don’t increase very much,” said Beuerlein.
Earlier this fall the Moriah Food Pantry’s supplies were so depleted officials asked for emergency assistance. Last year the pantry served about 100 families a month. This year, Sue Morse, Moriah Food Pantry manager, said the demand for assistance has risen about 25 percent.
“In these very difficult economic times, more families are feeling the squeeze and are short of money each month,” Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said. “This problem only grows with the cuts that are in place at the county. Contrary to popular belief, many of these families are working in low-paying jobs, so they are dependent on some programs to make it through each month.”
Beuerlein agrees. She said the problem seems especially bad for single-parent families.
“We see families with children not making it,” she said. “One cause that leaps at me is ‘out of food stamps’.”
So what can be done to help distressed families? Besides the food pantries, local churches, schools and communities are stepping up.
Hirtle’s church operates Second Blessing Thrift Stop in Crown Point. The First Methodist Church in Ticonderoga houses a thrift shop.
“We have been busier than in years past and with fewer donations,” Hirtle said of Second Blessings.
This holiday season the Tiny Tim Christmas Wish Program, which provides Christmas gifts to needy children in the Ticonderoga area, will service 140 children from 52 families.
“It’s not the most we’ve ever had, but it's right up there,” Nancy Quesnel, Tiny Tim director, said of the number of children. “We normally have about 125 children we shop for.”
At Crown Point and other schools teachers and staff help out as best they can — often at their own expense.
“We do have a bit of an advantage, since we are smaller, to have an informal system that helps recognize and remedy some of the needs of children living in poverty,” Brannock said. “Staff members often bring to my attention concerns or issues students have. We meet their needs by local support from businesses, churches and personal donations. We can help many children because we are small and know each and every one of them very well.”
Schroon Lake Central School, where about half the students receive free and reduced lunches, also helps the poor in the community.
This Thanksgiving staff and teachers made up 22 baskets containing every needed for a holiday dinner and distributed them to local families, said Laura Corey, Schroon Lake Teachers Association president.
The Schroon Lake Teachers Association also asks members to bring food items every Friday in exchange for wearing jeans. The food is given to the Schroon Lake Food Pantry, which served 126 children along with 52 adults during November. And, teachers also support other programs in the community such as the Christmas Express.
“As a high school teacher I think poverty is less obvious than in the elementary school,” Corey said. “But I see the affects of the poor economy on our students and their families. It’s obvious a lot of people are struggling.”
Scozzafava pointed out some help is available.
“The town of Moriah helps in its support of the food pantry and we also offer a pre-school and after school programs,” he said. “The Head Start program also helps in this area. During the summer months the town also participates in the USDA breakfast and lunch programs during the summer youth programs. The community also helps out at Christmas time with the Port Henry Fire Department doing a toy and clothing drive. Many of our local business also participate.”
Government also has a role in helping the poor, Scozzafava said.
“Decent affordable housing is a real problem, with many absentee landlords renting properties that do not meet the building and fire codes,” he said. “Both the town and village (of Port Henry) have been addressing this ongoing problem as best we can, but the Department of Social Services also needs to work harder to see that children are not at risk in their homes. I have advocated for years that before a family moves into a dwelling that receives public assistance, Social Services should first inspect the premises to see that it is fit for living in. The caseworker should also make routine visits to ensure that the safety of the children is what it should be.
“There are many flaws in the current system, and all to often we actually make families even more dependent on these programs because of the rules,” he said.