Dec. 6, 2005The poverty level in the Virgin Islands continues to climb, according to representatives of the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.
At the sixth annual Kids Count Conference, held Tuesday at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef Hotel, presenters said the poverty rate increased 1.7 percent in 2003meaning that 795 more children on St. Thomas, 1,000 more children on St. Croix, and 413 more children on St. John are living in destitute conditions for a variety of reasons.
"Seventy percent of children in the V.I. are born to unwed mothers, so they're already starting out with a deficit," said Richard Brown, head of the Fatherhood Initiative for CFVI. Statistics in the Kids Count data book supported Brown's statement by saying that factors related to poverty continue to be related to single motherhood in the V.I. Statistics in the book also showed that 41.5 percent of households are headed by single mothers — a 2 percent increase from 2002.
However, this information has failed to solicit a big enough response from the V.I. community, Dee Baecher-Brown, CFVI's president, said. At Tuesday's meeting, fewer than 100 people showed up — including one senator and no top administrator from the Education Department.
Presenters also said twice as many young Virgin Islanders between the ages of 18 and 24 are neither at school nor at work. Of those in the workforce, 38.7 percent are living in poverty. Additionally, drop out rates at the high school level are increasing, according to the statistics bookan estimated 1,294 individuals ages 18 and 19 do not have a diploma. Of those individuals, 189 did not make it past ninth grade, the book said.
Beth Marshall, Enhanced Education director at the University of the Virgin Islands, said these percentages could be attributed to factors such as the lack of instructional materials in local public schools, and the fact that teachers and parents have low expectations for their children. Marshall said students with mild to moderate learning disabilities are not being picked up by special education programs, hurting their chances of continuing in school.
Carmen Rogers Green, director of the Family Life Center at UVI, asked the audience, "If a child has bad math skills and bad reading skills, do we really expect that they won't drop out of school?"
Rogers-Green said drop out rates in the territory's middle schools are "sky-high," and therefore more action should be taken to motivate children at an early age. However, she said the territory's environment is not conducive to galvanizing children into taking education seriously. "When they walk outside in the morning, who are they saying hello tothe drug addicts on the corner, the unemployed, the dropouts. That's what we have to change. We have to get into their mind, and get them to think outside the box," she said.
Rogers-Green said she is "always amazed" when a child tells her they have not thought about what they want to be when they grow up. "They're being taught to have no plans to be something other than what is seen in this community," she said.
A factor perpetuating this mind-set is that parents feel they are incapable of raising their own children, she added. "We need to empower the parents by developing parenting centers," she said. "Many of them are living in poverty, running from one job to the next and don't have the time or resources to take care of their kids. And we need to help with that."
Marshall said after the meeting she has spoken with local teachers who feel they need to be empowered as well, since they are not being properly compensated for teaching. "It is really hard to get people excited about teaching when they are being paid below the poverty rate," she said earlier, during the meeting.
Edward Jones, a nutritionist with the V.I. WIC program, added another community problem to the discussionthe trend of obesity in young V.I. children. Jones said since there are currently no statistics on the number of overweight students in public schools, he has gone to the Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean high schools on St. Thomas, and measured 700 children himself.
Jones was moved to tears as he described conversations he has had with students. "Some of them were close to 400 pounds I had to weigh them on two scales. They have diabetes, and don't know how to treat it. There has to be something we can do about this," he said.
Tamara Copeland, president for Voices for America's Children and Tuesday's keynote speaker, said the only thing to do is advocate. "Lobby your representativespush until you get a response," she said. "It's one thing to get together in meetings like this, it's another thing to actually do something about it."
Copeland described actions her Voices for America's Children — an organization which provides support for children's advocacy programs across the mainlandtook against the federal government's $54 billion spending cut bill. She said version of the bill presented by the House of Representatives "packed an enormous amount of pain," with drastic cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, child welfare, and childcare programs.
"Vulnerable children are being attacked on two fronts here," Copeland said. "The bill forces them to lose these essential things while tax breaks for millionaires drain the funding available for their Head Start, child abuse prevention, and after school programs. In fact $1 out of every $5 the House cuts will be from benefits to children — totaling about 19.5 percent of the total cuts in the bill."
Copeland said her organization will continue to lobby Congress to improve the bill. "We have already got them to drop cuts from $54 billion to $49.5 billion," she said. "And that's what has to happen here. Keep pushing until something happens."
Copeland ended her speech with a quote from abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, saying, "It is far easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Amidst the applause emanating from Tuesday's audience, Copeland added that disaster caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the mainland have forced America to see what is happening to children. "We can never forget now," she said. "It is critically important for us to be the voice of the children. They can't do it by themselves."
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