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article imageChild poverty rates soar in the home of Walmart Stores Special

By Kay Mathews     Nov 13, 2009 in Lifestyle
In Northwest Arkansas, where Walmart Stores, Inc. is headquartered, the number of people in poverty is growing faster than the population, and the number of children in poverty is growing even faster. Low-paying jobs contribute to rising poverty levels.
Arkansas has ranked in the bottom ten states in terms of child well-being for many years. And, most recently, the 2009 KIDS COUNT Data Book indicates Arkansas ranks in the bottom 10 on nine of 10 indicators such as 44th worst in both the child death rate and percent of teens not in school and not working; 47th worst in the percent of children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment; and 46th worst in both the infant mortality and teen birth rates.
The numbers above were reported in a press release from the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
A number that is especially regrettable is that the State of Arkansas ranks 48th worst in the percent of children living in poverty.
Still, what is worse and somewhat shocking is the fact that child poverty rates in the two of the wealthiest counties in Arkansas have risen considerably.
At a dinner held in Fayetteville, AR last weekend for children's advocates, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Cyd King said that when the child poverty rates for Benton and Washington counties were presented to the group "The sound of clinking glasses and the 'ching' of flatware hitting plates halted."
Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, provided me the data she shared at that dinner. Here are some of the disturbing facts:
*In Benton County, which has one of the highest median incomes in the state, the number of children in poverty grew 161 percent since 1990. During that same time, the overall population grew 116 percent
*Washington County’s population grew 73 percent during that time period, while the number of children in poverty grew 116 percent.
*In 1990, the number of children in poverty in Northwest Arkansas was 7,625 and that number rose to 17,904 in 2007.
Why is this disturbing? One reason is that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is headquartered in Benton County (in Bentonville, AR) and the adjoining county is Washington County.
According to MSNBC, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. was at the top of the Forbes 500 list, ranked by revenues, "for six of the last seven years but fell to No. 2 this year." Exxon Mobil Corp. took the top spot. Still, in 2008, "The world’s largest retailer took in $13.4 billion in annual profit, an increase of about 5 percent."
I asked a guest at the dinner, Dr. William Schreckhise, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, what his theories are in terms of why child poverty grew at such a substantial rate during what seems to be a generally profitable time in NWA (1990-2007)?
Dr. Schreckhise told me the following:
We tend to automatically associate growth with growing affluence. Why else would people move here unless they could live a much better life when they arrived? But, the reality of it is that not everybody coming here is getting a good, high paying job and keeping it. Instead, there is a portion of the newcomers who will be working in a low-paying job, and this has consequences for our poverty numbers.
A single mother of two working full time has to earn more than a dollar over the minimum wage for her family to be considered above the poverty line. If the newcomers are getting more of these jobs and fewer of the higher-paying ones, we can expect an increase in poverty rate. And, as a result, growth does not automatically translate into a higher standard of living for everybody living here.
Dr. William Schreckhise
Dr. William Schreckhise, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Arkansas
Photo courtesy of Dr. William Schreckhise
Dr. Schreckhise indicated that children in Northwest Arkansas fell through the cracks "because social welfare policy in the United States has the containment capacity of a kitchen colander...Even more, the rising child poverty rates in Northwest Arkansas illustrate the folly of relying solely on the notion that 'a rising tide lifts all boats' (though the tide certainly lifts some). If the tide of the fastest growing regional economy in the country failed to lift all the boats, then it is probably not lifting the boats elsewhere."
That Northwest Arkansas has the "fastest growing regional economy in the country" is illustrated by the economic development data found on the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce site. There, the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce states, "Bentonville/Bella Vista is a great place to locate new business and industry thanks to the quality of life and an educated and able work force. Milken Institute consistently rates our MSA in the Top 10 for the Best Economic Performers."
Moreover, in terms of national recognition, the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce cites Money Magazine's 2006 feature that "included Northwest Arkansas in their '100 Best Places to Live' listing for the first time ever."
However, for some children, Northwest Arkansas does not appear to be one of the best places to live. As noted by Dr. Schreckhise, "growth does not automatically translate into a higher standard of living for everybody living here."
And, as indicated in the information given to me by Kellams, "In Northwest Arkansas, the number of people in poverty is growing faster than the population, and the number of children in poverty is growing even faster. As our region has grown more successful, our children have fallen further behind."
This information, however, is a tool that children's advocates use to try to stem the rising tide of child poverty rates in Northwest Arkansas. As Kellams told me, "We try to provide data to the community about child well-being that can inform policymakers and citizens about the challenges that children face, particularly those whose families have lower and moderate incomes."
Interestingly, earlier this month, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation kicked-off a $32 million holiday giving campaign in which refrigerated trucks were donated to 35 U.S. food banks. In a Nov. 3, 2009 press release, Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation said, “In this economy, families and seniors across the country who rely on food banks have been hit especially hard...Our business and our charitable giving are united in the commitment to eradicate hunger in America.”
Margaret McKenna  pres. of the Walmart Foundation
Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation
Walmart Stores, Inc.
One of those refrigerated trucks, valued at $80,000, arrived at the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank on Nov. 3. It was reported that the truck was loaded with Wal-Mart private label Great Value products and apples.
The news story indicates that "About 100,000 Northwest Arkansas residents experience hunger every week." Hungry adults and children will benefit from this contribution, but as Dr. Schreckhise emphasizes lower-paying jobs are one of the biggest contributors to poverty in Northwest Arkansas. Still, it remains to be seen if the "world’s largest retailer" that "took in $13.4 billion in annual profit" in 2008, and is the top employer in Northwest Arkansas, will raise workers' wages, as opposed to executives' salaries, to a level that will help to ameliorate the area's underlying poverty problem.
The mission of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is to ensure that all children and their families have the resources and opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives and to realize their full potential. The statewide, non-profit child advocacy organization was established in 1977.
The KIDS COUNT Data Book is compiled and released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
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