September 23, 2023

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Mark Bennett: Vigo’s child-poverty rate reflects overall health issues | News Columns


Almost every kid who comes to Ryves Youth Center for its free services — food, study tools, mentoring, supervision, activities, safety, peace — lives in poverty.

So, the fact that Vigo County now has Indiana’s highest child-poverty rate doesn’t change daily life at Ryves. The donation-driven Catholic Charities in Terre Haute facility at 14th and Locust streets helped more than 1,000 individual children from ages 3 to 18 last year, and another 267 so far in 2022.

Indiana Children in Poverty v2 graphic.jpg

University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute

Peak: This graphic shows Vigo County’s status as having the highest child poverty rate (28%) in Indiana.

Its director, Jim Edwards, has served at Ryves since it opened in 1982. He’s noticed one difference from the escalating poverty among kids here, though — its intensity.

“We’re seeing more need in kids who are living in poverty,” Edwards said Thursday afternoon.

That need may be a safe place to go after school, because a parent’s low-income job won’t cover childcare. Or a hot meal, a backpack of food for a weekend, a volunteer grandparent to listen to their fears, a computer for homework, a tutor to understand algebra. All are free to the child and their family.

Instead of coming to Ryves for one of those needs, some youngsters now come for multiple necessities. Or all of the above.

Child poverty in Terre Haute and the surrounding counties got illuminated by Wednesday’s release of the annual County Health Rankings and Roadmaps from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That respected report showed that 28% of Vigo County children ages 18 years and under live in poverty. That’s 3% higher than Lake County, which has Indiana’s second-highest child-poverty rate.

It’s not the only concern in the County Health Rankings. Vigo ranks second in food insecurity, third in preventable hospital stays, fourth in cases of sexually transmitted infections, fourth in childcare cost burden, sixth in the prevalence of HIV cases, and has the fifth-lowest median household income.

County residents also rank in the state’s bottom third for dying prematurely, adult smoking and adult obesity.

Overall, Vigo County ranked among Indiana’s unhealthiest counties. Vigo ranked 69th out of 92 counties in health outcomes (how long people live and how healthy people feel while alive) and 85th in health factors (health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and physical environment factors).

Every county in America “has strengths and weaknesses,” County Health Rankings data-analysis team leaders Christine Muganda and Michael Stevenson told the Tribune-Star on Thursday. Vigo’s positives include residents access to exercise opportunities (upper half in Indiana) and one of the state’s lowest rates of workers driving long commutes alone.

One significant and timely concern reflected in the rankings — school funding adequacy. Vigo county ranked 72nd in Indiana in per-pupil funding. The calculations are based on equity, and each county’s needs vary, so the formula takes that into account, according to the UW Population Health Institute analysts.

As a state, Indiana falls short of school funding adequacy, the report states, but Vigo County’s per-pupil spending ($10,434, according to the report) falls more short than the state.

“A well-funded school can help put a child on the path to academic success and a healthy life — some of the pathways include smaller class sizes, increased instructional time, and more competitive teacher salaries,” Muganda explained. “In Indiana, school districts are spending about $76 per student annually below the estimated need to support achievement of average U.S. test scores. In Vigo County, the experience is similar, with [the Vigo County School Corp.] spending an average of $311 less per student than the estimated need to support achievement of average U.S. test scores.”

Mark Bennett: Vigo's child-poverty rate reflects overall health issues

University of Wisconsin Population Health InstituteStill lagging: Per-pupil funding for local schools has increased since 2013, but remains below national and state levels needed to achieve U.S. average test scores, according to the annual County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Vigo’s school funding deficit has lessened over the past decade, though, Muganda added.

That’s relevant right now as Vigo County voters decide whether to fund a $261-million rebuilding and renovation project at three county high schools and one middle school — all are 50 to 60 years old. Vigo Countians strengthened funding for the local schools in 2019 by approving a $7-million referendum to support operational costs, including a boost in teacher pay, particularly needed at the starting level. That referendum, which would end early after 2024 if the construction referendum passes, can help keep young teachers from leaving their chosen field — a serious situation that directly affects kids here and around Indiana.

Vigo County’s poor overall health and poor health-behaviors among adults influences the child-oriented well-being problems — child poverty and high childcare cost burdens — highlighted in the County Health Rankings. Those dots connect in homes and families, and then in the schools.

“Our health is influenced by things like access to health care and healthy behaviors, but our health is also influenced by things like having access to a job that pays a living wage and being able to afford safe housing,” Stevenson, the rankings data-analysis team leader said. “Good economic conditions are vital to building healthy communities — and we see those impacts from childhood through adulthood.”

A community’s childcare cost burden reflects the health of adults and kids. In Vigo County, childcare costs for a household with two school-age children would consume 24% of the typical family’s income, according to the County Health Rankings.

“When a single household expense consumes nearly a quarter of the paycheck, it will be difficult to access opportunities for health and meet basic needs such as access to safe and stable housing, medications and healthy foods,” Muganda said. “When children experiencing poverty also attend under-funded schools, barriers to health and future well-being continue to stack up.”

Thank goodness for Ryves Center, Catholic Charities, their donors and volunteers, and the many other agencies that serve this community’s impoverished kids.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected].

To see the rankings …

• The results for Vigo and surrounding counties, as well as other counties in Indiana and the nation, can be viewed online at To see Vigo County’s numbers, go to


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