Hispanic poverty in rural areas challenges states

WASHINGTON – Today, 1 in 4 babies born in the U.S. is Hispanic. Increasingly they are being born into immigrant families who’ve bypassed the cities – the traditional pathway for immigrants – for rural America.

Hispanic babies born in rural enclaves are more likely to be impoverished than those in the city. And it’s harder for them to receive help from federal and state programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Consistent health care also is hard to come by, particularly if their parents are undocumented and are fearful of being discovered and deported – even though the children are U.S. citizens.

As a result, many researchers say, many of these children may never realize their full potential and escape poverty.

“These babies are starting behind the starting line,” said Daniel Lichter, a Cornell University researcher and co-author of a recent study on their situation. “And their opportunities as they move into adulthood are jeopardized. These are American citizens at risk of failing to thrive.”

Hard-to-reach population

A handful of states and municipalities are experimenting with ways to reach and help Hispanic families with young children living in rural areas, from health-care initiatives to home visiting programs to bilingual preschool programs.

“This is a very hard-to-reach population,” said Brenda Eskenazi, a professor of maternal and child health and epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley who has been tracking the health of hundreds of poor, rural Latino children in central California for 15 years. “This is an underserved population whose needs aren’t being documented.”

Forty-seven percent of rural Hispanic babies are born poor, compared to 41 percent of Hispanic babies in urban areas, according to data compiled by Stateline.

Nearly half of rural Latino babies have mothers who were born outside the U.S., and those infants have a poverty rate of 44 percent, according to Lichter’s study. About half the families are able to gain access to food stamps, but other welfare benefits reach only about 12 percent of them, the study found.

“Rural newborns born into rural poverty is reality,” said Jose Padilla, director of California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., a nonprofit. “Rural (areas are) where many of the foreign born and immigrant families go to live.”

Locked into poverty

The parents, many of whom come from Mexico and Central America, most often work in low-wage jobs, often in agricultural jobs on industrial farms, in meat-processing plants, dairies and plant nurseries. “Even if both parents work,” Padilla said, “the wages are so low, the family remains in poverty.”

Few farmers provide housing for their workers, leaving families to fend for themselves. Some children grow up in ramshackle houses, where a family of four might share one bedroom, another family might live in the other bedroom and a dozen men might be camped out on the living room floor.

“The quality of housing that farmworkers are living in is quite often substandard, which can add to health problems,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health for Farmworker Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy and research group. “Families are exposed to environmental toxins like mold, rodents and insects.”

Some babies born into farmworker families live within spraying distance of industrial-strength pesticides.

In tracking Hispanic children in California, Eskenazi has found they often have trouble excelling in school because their homes are overcrowded and they have nowhere to do their homework.

Because transportation is limited, it’s hard for them to participate in after-school activities. And there are few resources for children having trouble in school.

Very few go on to college, she said, and very few will escape poverty once they hit adulthood.

Kids picking crops

Because their parents cannot afford child care, children often are left by themselves while their parents work. In summer, the children often end up working alongside their parents in the fields.

Federal child labor laws restrict children under 16 from working – with the exception of children working in the agriculture and entertainment industries. Unless states pass prohibitive laws, children under 12 legally can work seven days a week picking crops after school – provided they have written parental consent.

“What scares me now is that many of them are going to end up in gangs,” Eskenazi said. “We expect that we’re going to see them become juvenile delinquents, drop out of school and experience teen pregnancies.”

Realizing the challenges that this population poses, some states and localities are experimenting with ways to address them.

Lawmakers in Utah, where the Latino population has jumped 78 percent over the past decade, passed legislation last year to provide computers and Internet access to low-income families of preschoolers. (The program is for all children, although the state’s counties are overwhelmingly rural.) The program gives priority to families for whom English is a second language, according to Matthew Weyer of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Eastern states from New York to North Carolina and Georgia have centers run by the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, which specifically provides services to migrant and seasonal farmworker families. The program is staffed with bilingual teachers and provides meals, transportation, nutrition and career counseling, and health care to farm children and their parents.

Promise Neighborhoods

The rural municipalities of Berea, Ky., and Indianola, Miss., recently received federal grants to address the needs of all rural children. These Promise Neighborhoods take a “cradle to grave” approach: from birth, disadvantaged children are tracked by different agencies, from school districts to health centers to child-care centers, which work closely together to coordinate services.

Such programs can have a big impact on the lives of rural Hispanic children, according to Michael McAfee, vice president for programs at PolicyLink, an Oakland, Calif.-based think tank that tracks inequity in the U.S.

Already, early results from the programs seem promising, McAfee said. One Kentucky county reported that kindergarten-ready reading scores increased from 19 to 56 percent in the past year.

Programs helping poor, rural Latino children are most effective when local leaders have the power to tailor programs to targeted populations, McAfee said.

“You’ve got to give local leaders that flexibility,” he said. “They know how to engage culturally to get to Latino families in rural areas. If they’re fearful of the agency, or fearful of your program, they’re not going to come. When you allow the experts to do what it takes, we’re seeing results really accelerate.”

States have a social and economic stake in finding ways of reaching and helping rural Hispanic children, McAfee said.

“If you meet the needs of the most vulnerable, you help the broader society,” he said. “This is America’s tomorrow. Children of color are going to make up the majority of the population. We’re either going to have a healthy American economy – or we’re not.”

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