GUEST COMMENTARY: Poverty takes a huge toll on our region

2013-12-22T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Poverty takes a huge toll on our regionBy Thomas Keon nwitimes.com
December 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Twenty years ago, when our region first developed a Quality of Life Indicators Report, the founders of the report recognized the harmful impact poverty has on all who call our region home. The latest version of the report shows that since 2000, the poverty rate has increased in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

As you read this, you might be sitting in a warm, comfortable home, sipping a cup of coffee and eating a nutritionally balanced breakfast. When poverty is mentioned, what comes to mind? For me, it is often third world countries and people dealing with starvation. However, 20 percent of children in the United States live in poverty. Each of us should be aware that the detrimental effects of poverty take a huge toll on our region.

Why should each of us be interested in poverty? For starters, leaders across the world are addressing this issue. Pope Francis suggested the widespread frequency of poverty is creating significant inequity in the world. President Barack Obama has mentioned the disparity between the rich and the poor in recent speeches.

Social inequities and economic inequities are two important dimensions of poverty. Purdue North Central Chancellor James Dworkin recently pointed me to Super Zips — zip codes of American households with the highest level of baccalaureate degree completion and income.

This simple measure reinforces the idea of a strong relationship between poverty and lack of educational attainment. We are often told by public school teachers it is virtually impossible to teach children who come to school hungry. I was moved by a story about a student who saved a portion of his or her school lunch to bring home to a younger sibling. But is hunger the only problem?

Student performance in schools in areas of poverty does not reach the level of performance of their more affluent peers. Can these two groups of students really be considered peers given the significant differences in their situations? While there is obvious social inequity, are there other factors? Early childhood education is of great concern today because students begin their primary educations not prepared. Is it a surprise that students who live in poverty begin school without the ability to read, have a limited vocabulary and are not prepared to do simple math?

Another issue covered in a Nov. 26 Huffington Post Healthy Living article reported the relationship of poverty, obesity and diabetes. In this article, Dr. Mark Hyman explains that too frequently, the poor purchase "nutritionally depleted, cheap calories from sodas, processed foods, and junk food," while fresh vegetables have soared in price and are not available in some parts of the inner cities. This contributes to obesity and disease through changes in the metabolism and muscle loss, which in turn leads to diseases like diabetes.

Thus, the effects of poverty are long-lasting and deep-reaching. As many of us enjoy the bounty of the holiday season and wish each other a happy and prosperous New Year, let us think more creativity and recommit ourselves to making our region better for all – by addressing social inequities where we find them, and taking action through public and private initiatives to build a stronger economy.

Thomas Keon is chancellor of Purdue University Calumet. The opinions are the writer's.

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