When the town of Cordele was founded in 1888, it was one of Georgia’s thriving communities. It featured a business district, an opera house and fine homes and experienced rapid growth as a hub with connections to three railroads.
More than a century later, Cordele is the poorest town in the state with one of the highest rates of poverty, just one example of the many communities across the Southeast where children are most at risk.
Eight out of 10 states with the highest rates of rural child poverty are in the Southeast, according to Save the Children’s second annual End of Childhood Report released Wednesday. In Georgia, 1 in 3 rural children are growing up in poverty.
“Last year, children in the Northeast had a childhood that was more intact than across the South,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, which has worked in rural communities since the 1960s. “Some of the worst stats are across the Southern parts of the U.S. We wanted to look deeper this year.”
In 2016, about 14 million American children under the age of 18 lived in poverty. Of those, 11.8 million lived in urban areas compared to 2.3 million in rural areas, but rates of child poverty are higher in rural communities. In Georgia, 33 percent of rural children live in poverty, compared to 21 percent of urban children.
The increasing inequality between children should be a call to action, said Miles. “We really need to treat child poverty in the U.S. like it is an emergency,” she said. Finding solutions to the issues that negatively impact children means turning to the very communities where those needs exist. “Community solutions are the thing that works the best. We need more support of those kinds of solutions,” Miles said.
Children in rural communities are more likely to have younger, less educated parents. They are more likely than their urban counterparts to receive government assistance and less likely to have health insurance. They are far less likely to graduate from college, and as adults, they can expect to earn less even if they have the same level of educational attainment as urban children who grew up in poverty.
Jon West, vice president of programs at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said innovation is key in addressing these issues of child poverty. Hunger is often one of the first presenting issues of household poverty, and the needs of rural and urban areas can be very different, he said.
While the organization depends on community partners, those networks are more robust in urban areas, he said. Rural communities present unique challenges with both low access to solutions and channels of distribution.
“We are actively looking to bring more partners in our networks, but in a rural community, that is only going to get you so far. There is still going to be a gap between what people need and what is available though those traditional networks,” he said.
Over the past four years, the organization has looked more deeply at the issue of childhood hunger and explored innovative strategies such as a partnership in Gwinnett County in which they distribute food to children through mobile libraries during the summer.
Georgia ranked 44 out of 50 states on measures of child poverty. The report measured five “Childhood Enders” using indicators that put U.S. children at risk — infant mortality rate, child food insecurity rate, rate of high school dropouts, child homicide and suicide rates and the adolescent birth rate. Georgia showed improvements on four of the five markers of child poverty measured in the report, but the data revealed a decline on the measure of youth violence.
“We think often of gun violence affecting families and kids in urban settings,” Miles said. “One of the things that was interesting about that statistic is that it was more pronounced in rural America than I would have thought.”
In 2016 across the state of Georgia, children ages 0-19 died by suicide or homicide at a rate of 7.7 per 100,000 children compared to the national rate of 6.5, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase in childhood violence was mirrored in at least 30 states across the country, including states that ranked among the top states for child welfare.
Child poverty is not a new issue for Georgia, but one that the state needs to be less complacent about. “We have not rallied around this as a state to date,” West said. “We have people who care about this issue. I think this could be a place where Georgia could be a real leader.”