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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 01:02 am

A tough time to be a kid

A 10-year-old girl started pulling out her hair because she was so concerned about her family’s economic security.

A teenage boy pleaded with his parents to let him drop out of school so he could work and support his struggling family.

Kathy Ryg, president of Voices for Illinois Children, has heard dozens of stories like these. Last week, the advocacy group released its 2010 “Kids Count” report, which details the recession’s extensive and potentially long-lasting effects on children and families.

“An entire generation of children here in our own state, right now, face the prospect of a life filled with struggles, because of what is happening to their families today,” Ryg says.

About 530,000 Illinois children live in poverty, the annual report says, and that number is expected to increase in the coming years. In 2008, the child poverty rate hit 17 percent, and it’s likely to climb to 22 percent by 2012.

“The data reinforce our sense of urgency,” Ryg says. “It’s really a tough time to be a kid. It’s important that Illinois continues to invest in the well-being of children and families, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

Sangamon County’s child poverty rate hits the statewide average at 17.1 percent. However, more families than ever are seeking help from local nonprofit groups just to make ends meet.

Carol Harms, community service supervisor at Springfield Catholic Charities, says her organization has seen 1,494 new cases since last year. Many of the new cases are families who used to donate, she says.

“One man came into our office and he was shaking,” Harms says. “A caseworker asked him, ‘Are you cold?’ and he said, ‘No, I’m nervous and I’m embarrassed. I’ve never had to ask for food before. I have a family. I’m laid off, and I want to make sure I can care for them.’”

Catholic Charities provides food, as well as monetary assistance for rent and utilities, Harms says. More people than ever are visiting the group’s crisis office, with 6,522 visits in 2009, compared to 5,236 in 2008.

John Kelker, president of United Way of Central Illinois, says the report is unique because it deals specifically with the correlation between child poverty and economic crisis.

“This report gives us the first picture of how the recession is impacting children and their families,” Kelker says.

Ryg says her organization is “acutely aware” of the state’s budget crisis, but she hopes the General Assembly will not make further cuts to her programs. She is on the record supporting a tax increase, she says.

“If we help children while they’re young and developing their social, emotional and cognitive skills, we get greater outcome, greater benefit,” Ryg says. “If we fail to help children in those critical stages, we deal with the negative and far more costly consequences for years.”

Voices for Illinois Children will discuss the report’s findings at the 2010 Illinois Kids Count Symposium in Chicago on March 5.

The report can be viewed online at www.voices4kids.org.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com
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