If getting to the middle class was a track event, some children were born on the finish line and some have a full 300-meter hurdle race ahead of them.
In 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties — including Umatilla and Morrow — children born to the lowest 40 percent of income-earners have a less than 50 percent chance of ever reaching the middle class or above as adults, according to a report by the Oregon Community Foundation. Meanwhile children born into the middle class and above — helped by parents’ social connections, SAT tutors, extracurricular activities and more — are likely to stay there.
It’s known as the “opportunity gap,” and closing it for local children is a challenge that consumes schools, government agencies and charities in every town.
“This work can’t be done in silos,” Catie Brenaman, family education and support director for Umatilla-Morrow County Head Start said. “This is not a one-agency job.”
The OCF report, titled “Toward a thriving future: Closing the opportunity gap for Oregon’s kids,” suggests a wide variety of solutions are needed to improve upward mobility for children born on the wrong side of the gap. Those suggestions include providing programs to encourage post-secondary education, strengthening families through parent education and helping children build “social capital” via involvement in things like sports, clubs and religious organizations.
Closing the opportunity gap is the main goal for the aptly named Head Start. Programs it offers include parent education classes, home visits, Court-Appointed Special Advocates for foster children, matching grants for housing and preschool classes.
“Our goal is to serve children and families to make sure they’re getting the best start,” Brenaman said.
There are a lot of families out there that need help — according to the OCF report, 47 percent of Oregon’s children are being raised in families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which for a family of four is $48,000 a year. The makeup of the family unit makes a difference, too. More than one in three single-parent families is in poverty, for example, compared to less than one in 10 married-parent families.
Head Start also offers parenting classes and support groups open to anyone, regardless of income. Parents are taught to use their strengths to deal with things like discipline and bedtime routines in a healthy, developmentally appropriate way for their children, and can network with other parents.
Mary Lou Gutierrez offers cooking classes where parents and children learn to cook nutritious, low-cost meals together.
“I’ll tell them this recipe only takes $8 or $10 to feed a family of six people and they’ll say, ‘What?!’,” she said. “Because they’re spending more than that on food that’s not even healthy.”
While parents are meant to be their children’s first and most influential teachers, schools can help fill in the gaps for children who aren’t born into a financially stable home with two married, college-educated parents — the ideal, statistically speaking, for reaching the middle class.
Melody Bustillos, a counselor at Hermiston High School, said only about 14 percent of adults over 25 in Hermiston have a bachelor’s degree or above, so many students who are looking to pursue a college degree don’t necessarily have a parent who can give guidance from personal experience.
“We basically assume all our kids need help,” she said.
The high school has three clubs to help with that: College Club, which is open to any student interested in a post-secondary education; the College Savers club, which is income-based; and Generation College, for students who would be the first in their family to graduate from college.
Last week the school brought seniors planning to study at Blue Mountain Community College this fall to BMCC’s Hermiston and Pendleton campuses, where students were given a tour by current BMCC students. Those ambassadors answered questions from the high school students about things like placement tests and online classes.
Bustillos said Generation College advisors are unique to most high school programs because they stick with students all the way through their college graduation, answering questions and offering support as needed.
“It’s not enough to just get them accepted,” she said. “You can’t just turn them loose and figure everything’s OK. ... We talk a lot about high school graduation rates and about getting kids accepted into college but I feel like we rarely talk about helping these kids get a degree.”
The Oregon Community Foundation found that children in some communities find it easier to escape poverty than others. Children in Eastern Oregon counties tend to fare better than those on the west side of the state in moving up the income ladder, but Umatilla County and Morrow County are the exceptions to that rule. The report notes that “Communities with higher upward mobility tend to be more racially and economically integrated and have less income inequality, more social capital, more two-parent families and higher-quality schools.”
The report suggests that most Eastern Oregon children may have more upward mobility in part because of the social capital piece. A 2006 study cited in the report called “The production of social capital in US counties” — which ranked social capital based on per-capita membership of civic organizations, fitness centers, religious institutions and more — showed Wallowa County ranked the highest in the state on the social capital index, followed by Baker and Grant counties. Umatilla and Morrow counties ranked on the lower end of the scale for the state.
One organization in Hermiston created since then is Made to Thrive, a nonprofit that provides at-risk children with the money, transportation, equipment and support needed to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. Kriss Dammeyer, the nonprofit’s director, said she has seen children learn lifelong skills like anger management, networking and honoring commitments through sports.
“It’s really something special to see a child who has never gotten to participate in anything light up when you tell them they get to participate and whatever barrier has been keeping them away, we’re going to knock down,” she said.