By Steven Hoffman
As the United Way of Southern Chester County launches its new campaign, it is looking to boost the assistance that is available to the most vulnerable segment of the population—children who live in poverty.
While Chester County ranks among the most affluent counties in the U.S., there are still thousands of residents who find it a daily challenge to put food on the table or to meet other basic needs.
According to Carrie Freeman, the CEO of the United Way of Southern Chester County, a recently released report shows that an increasing number of children in the area are facing the struggles that come with an impoverished life. There were 1,903 children between the ages of 5 and 17 who were living in poverty in 2011, an increase of 65 percent in just five years.
The report, which was prepared by Vickery Consulting in Oxford, also looked at the number of students in the area who are eligible for free or reduced lunches in school. From 2007 to 2013, the number of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches at school increased by 53.1 percent while enrollment only grew by 4.8 percent. There were 4,643 area students who were eligible for free or reduced lunches in the last school year based on federal standards for family income. Even the affluent Unionville-Chadds Ford School District saw a whopping 231.6 percent increase in children eligible for free lunches between 2007 and 2013.
According to the report, the U.S. Census Bureau's estimated percentage of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who live in poverty was 5.7 percent in Avon Grove, 10.6 percent in Kennett Square, 15 percent in Oxford, and 3.3 percent in Unionville.
While childhood poverty is a growing concern here, it is worse in many places across the U.S.
Nationally, the rate of childhood poverty was 21.9 percent. Nearly half of U.S. children live in families experiencing economic hardship.
“These statistics reflect what our agencies feel every day,” said Freeman. “The recession has put enormous pressure on our neighbors. Now more than ever we need everyone to contribute what they can to this year’s campaign.”
Freeman pointed out that a gift to the United Way addresses many community needs as the gifts are pooled together and awarded to numerous programs that serve the southern Chester County community. Approximately 13,000 southern Chester County residents are helped every year by United Way-funded programs. This chapter of the United Way serves four school districts: Avon Grove, Kennett, Oxford, and Unionville-Chadds Ford. The 256-mile service area has a total of 109,000 residents.
There is a screening process where volunteers for the United Way evaluate requests from local non-profits and make the awards based on the greatest need and impact of the program. Last year, 32 programs received more than $1 million from the United Way. The organizations that received awards from the United Way provide various forms of assistance to the area’s neediest families, including two food cupboards, three after-school programs, health and dental clinics, and scholarships for daycare.
The United Way also provides assistance for families that need emergency shelter or heat.
On Jan. 30 of this year, the Chester County Department of Community Development counted 625 homeless people in Chester County, including 141 people in families with children. Most of these individuals were in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
“The United Way campaign is about neighbors helping neighbors,” Freeman said. “Without donations from those who can give, many agencies would have to close their doors. Small gifts add up.”
This year’s campaign goal is set at about $1.25 million. Freeman said that many non-profits in the area rely on the funding from the United Way to help continue providing their programs and services.
“When families have enough food and adequate shelter, they can move toward sustainable independence,” Freeman said. “Look around you. If you have neighbors, chances are some of them need your help.”
Contributions can be made online at www.unitedwayscc.org or mailed to the United Way of Southern Chester County, 106 West State St., Kennett Square, Pa. 19348.