More than 25% of Louisiana children live in poverty. Can new benefits help to 'break the cycle'?

Leigh Guidry
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Gayelyn Thibeaux serving meals to students in make shift drive thru at Cpl. Michael Middlebrook Elementary in Lafayette, LA. Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

In Louisiana's poorest parishes, one priority rose to the top amid all the decisions that needed to be made about how to get kids and families through the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn't access to technology or childcare, although those undoubtedly were on the list.

It was food.

"What we were most concerned with this past year was feeding — making sure they were getting that nutrition," said Ginger Lecompte, executive director of United Way St. Landry-Evangeline. "We're a poor community."

Her organization serves two rural and high-poverty Acadiana parishes. St. Landry Parish has the fourth-highest rate of child poverty in the state, with nearly half (46.6%) of kids under 18 falling below that line.

More:Is adult education the best weapon against poverty?

St. Landry also faces a high rate of child hunger (27%), common among others with high child poverty rates. Every public school in St. Landry Parish is considered a "Title I school," meaning they receive federal funding due to having a high percentage of students who meet criteria for free or reduced-price lunch.

It's a similar scene Madison Parish in northeast Louisiana. Superintendent C.E. Butler Jr. and his team at the public school district provide three meals a day every day to students, even sending food home on weekends.

"Madison Parish has been dealing with (poverty) since the beginning of time," said Butler, who grew up in Tallulah and graduated from the school district he now leads.

"It's been an issue," he said. "It's just been made worse during this time. As a school system, all we can do is provide every resource we think possible."

Madison's child poverty rate is the second-highest in Louisiana at 56.3%, according to the latest Childhood Report from Save the Children, just behind East Carroll with nearly two-thirds (61.5%) of its children living in poverty. Nearby Tensas Parish has the third-highest rate (47.7%), followed closely by St. Landry (46.6%).

Louisiana's Highest Child Poverty Rates:

  • East Carroll 61.5%
  • Madison 56.3%
  • Tensas 47.7%
  • St. Landry 46.6%
Madison Parish Superintendent C.E. Butler Jr. and his staff perform "Success Walks," visiting homes of students not logging in for virtual learning to find out why and help with connectivity issues.

Cutting poverty in half in Louisiana

More than a quarter of Louisiana's 1 million children live in poverty, but some are estimating that number could be cut in half this year with stimulus checks and expanded benefits for families with children.

With the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan now signed into law, people are seeing $1,400 deposits and an increased child tax credit for 2021 to as much as $3,000 per child and $3,600 for children under age 6.

More details are to be released, but this child benefit could come in the form of monthly payments for the latter half of 2021, effectively serving as a "child allowance" that other rich countries have.

The expansion of this tax credit is more than just a dollar increase. The number of eligible families is going up, too, as the full Child Tax Credit becomes available to all children except families with the highest incomes. Under this stimulus package, the maximum credit is available to children in families with low earnings or that lack earnings in a year, and it extends to 17-year-olds.

This could lift 4.1 million children nationwide above the poverty line — cutting the number of children in poverty by more than 40 percent — and lift 1.1 million children out of "deep poverty," or above half the poverty line, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In particular, this could benefit Black and Latino children as well as rural children, whom the current credit disproportionately leaves out.

"Some 27 million children — including roughly half of all Black and Latino children and a similar share of rural children — receive less than the current maximum $2,000-per-child tax credit because their parents earn too little, even as middle- and higher-income families get the full amount," reads the Center's analysis.

 A family that earns less than $2,500 has been ineligible for the credit, and a single parent with two children who earns between $2,500 and $30,000 receives only a partial credit, according to the Center.

More: 'Students have opportunities': St. Landry school district revamps career, technical education

The latest Childhood Report from Save the Children ranked Louisiana as the worst state for children based on factors like poverty, child hunger, equity gap, infant deaths, teen pregnancy and high school dropout rate. The state's overall child poverty rate is 26.5%, but some parishes have rates twice that.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 529,000 Louisiana children are currently left out of the full $2,000 tax credit and would benefit from this expansion — with 94,000 children and teens in the Bayou State to be lifted out of poverty altogether.

'Temporary fix on a long-term problem'

However, that could be short-lived, experts say.

"This is a very temporary fix on a long-term problem," Lecompte said. "Once that money and those programs go away, we're going to be right back where we were or maybe worse. We can't say, 'Now kids aren't in poverty anymore.'"

Ginger Lecompte, St. Landry-Evangeline United Way director, addresses the audience at Thursday’s ALICE economic conference held in Opelousas.

Butler expects to see an impact in his area from stimulus fund and child benefits, and he hopes it gives families more stability when it comes to their home, work and childcare situations.

"The money — it definitely will have an impact," Butler said. "Our wish is that parents spend it appropriately, like paying rent, keeping the lights on. It all goes back to bare necessities. If those needs are not taken care of, there is no instruction. Kids can't focus on education."

But he agrees with Lecompte that this is a temporary solution. He's in favor of something more permanent, but doesn't think that should be done lightly either.

"Of course I would like that to happen (become permanent), but it also makes me wonder where the money comes from," Butler said. "I'm in the kid business, so of course, I want the resources go to our kids. It has to be thought out."

Proponents are pushing for the expanded tax credit to become permanent, serving as a "child allowance" like some other countries have in place. Lecompte said she could see something long-term like that making a difference with the families she serves.

"We've got to break that cycle of poverty, which means we've got to pour more money into it," she said. "Now (with the pandemic) is a great opportunity to drive (permanent programs) through because everyone's hurting."

Research has found spending at least part of childhood in poverty — defined federally as earning below $12,760 for an individual and $26,200 for a family of four — leads to poor health outcomes, worse test scores and lower wages than their counterparts.

"It's all tied together," Lecompte said.

And it can start in the schools, like with Leader in Me, a school and youth leadership development program in St. Landry schools and others across the region and nation.

"The program is making children, at a young age, realize their own leadership potential," which could have exponential results, Lecompte said.

"In doing that I think we can look forward to maybe breaking that cycle (of poverty)," she said. "When students perform better, when they attend better, when they have fewer (discipline) referrals, we're building a workforce there that could change the economic status of our community."

Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.