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Charla Schafer


I recently heard Leann Toughy, the mother from the “Blind Side” speak. (Sandra Bullock played her in the movie). She said when she started helping Michael that everyone thought she just wanted another child. She added, in an exasperated tone, "I didn’t even like the two I had. Why would I want another one?"

As a mother of three boys, I immediately signed up for her fan club. Can we all agree children are a hassle? They are a lot of work at times. But, what we inexplicably know is that we love the children in our community, want them to have happy childhoods, and grow into amazing adults.

So, what is the single biggest threat to a child’s well-being? Many are probably thinking their siblings … but it is, in fact, poverty. When Leann approached the Principal at the school inquiring about Michael, she was told, "Don’t get involved, Leann, he is not going to make it." But, as we know, the story turned out a bit differently because Michael was allowed to find his true potential, graduating from high school, as well as college.

According to the Pell Institute, there is a 9 percent chance that a child born into the bottom income quartile will complete college by the age of 24; compared to 77 percent in the upper income quartile. No, not every child from every socio-economic group needs to attend college; but every child needs to graduate high school, and income shouldn’t predict collegiate success.

We have heard a great deal over the past years about the “No Child Left Behind” ideal, but, it was presented as if it were an academic issue. Quite simply, “No Child Left Behind” begins with meeting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Children must be fed and have stable, safe, quality housing before they can learn … before they can reach their full potential.

Twenty-five percent of the homeless in the state of Iowa are children. In 2016, MCSA served over 400 children and their families that were homeless or on the verge of homelessness.

It is estimated that one in five children struggle with food instability in Muscatine. And we know a child can’t fill their head while their stomach is empty. I went to an event in the spring where they asked 125 at-risk Muscatine High School students if they have seen their mothers or grandmothers go hungry. It was estimated that 40 percent of the students shook their heads or raised their hands in concurrence.

Hunger and homelessness are very real in our community. The systemic cause is a lack of affordable housing. The outcome is untapped potential for our youth and perpetuation of poverty.

The more years a child resides in affordable housing, the higher the likelihood of financially stability at adulthood and the less likelihood of incarceration. A recent housing study released by the City of Muscatine reported that our community is 990 units short of affordable housing for the 2,429 households with incomes of less than $25,000.

Many will say, "the poor just need to get a job." According to Communication Across Barriers, ‘two-thirds of those in poverty are working an average of 1.7 jobs trying to make ends meet for their families. The majority of the clients we see through programs at MCSA are paying 60-80 percent of their income for housing. We see as high as 90 percent, leaving nothing left over and no room for a “hiccup” expense.

Some say, ‘We don’t have to help, there is Section 8 housing subsidies for those in need." However, there are currently 330 households on the Housing Choice Voucher waiting list so a household applying today could wait nearly two years for assistance. (There is funding available to support 340 vouchers).

We have historically demonstrated our societal concurrence that a child’s education is critically important to our community through our commitment of property taxes in support of local schools. We have to broaden this thinking and scope to create systemic change around quality affordable housing to allow our children to reach their full potential.

Or we could take the recommendation of the Principal at Michael Orr’s school, and "not get involved." For our children’s sake, I hope we are a more stubborn community than that.

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Charla Schafer is the Executive Director of Muscatine Center for Social Action.


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