The percentage of children in Hawaii receiving free and reduced lunch hit a new high in 2012, at the state level and in Hawaii County.
That’s according to the annual Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, a national look at issues that affect children. The latest report was released this week.
Hawaii County reported 65.5 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches in 2012, the most recent year for which data was available. The state average was 49.9 percent for the same year, the report said. Hawaii County’s rate was up from 62.3 percent in 2011, and from a low of 48.1 percent in 2008. The previous high was 54.4 percent in 2005, according to the foundation’s data.
How many children qualify for free or reduced lunch is just one of dozens of indicators the foundation uses to judge children’s well-being across the country. It features statistics on a variety of topics, ranging from teen birth rates to the economic status of immigrants, and provides a way to compare individual states to each other and to the national average.
Hawaii County, in addition to having the highest rate of children qualifying for the lunch subsidy program, recorded the highest rate of children in poverty in the state, at 29.9 percent. The City and County of Honolulu had the lowest rate, at 13.9 percent.
Local social service providers said this week they see access to child care, access to preschool and after-school care, as well as information for parents on how to help their children develop basic learning skills and habits as some of the major issues facing children and families on Hawaii Island.
“Preschool and quality day care are big challenges,” Family Support Hawaii Executive Director Ray Wofford said. “There aren’t many.”
The challenge of finding child care or enrolling a child in preschool is compounded by economic stresses, Wofford said. Such care can be expensive, so even if parents find it, they have a hard time affording it, he added.
Looking at broader social issues, Wofford, who came to Hawaii from Texas, said he had never encountered “a level of poverty and disenfranchisement like you see here in remote areas. It’s a unique challenge.”
Wofford said the challenges are especially great in working with the Marshallese and other immigrant community groups here.
“We do get into those communities, but it has to go through hierarchical structures,” he said.
The state’s push to get more children in preschool is a good thing, Wofford said. He said some people criticize the move, citing studies that show low-income children who attend preschool only earn average grades as they grow older.
“What we’re serving is the very lowest income and socially and psychologically challenged environment,” he said. “The fact that they are doing average” is a sign of success.
He also pointed to other studies that show the money a state spends on preschool is a good investment, saving the state on other social services later.
Statewide, the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool between 2010 and 2012 was 49 percent, slightly below the national average of 54 percent, according to the Kids Count data.
Brandy Menino, HOPE Services CEO, said her organization has been offering after-school care, through a partnership with Youth With a Mission, at The Homes at Ulu Wini in West Hawaii. Sometimes, the parents the organization works with don’t know how to help their children with homework or other school tasks, Menino said, so HOPE Services also works with parents to acquire those skills.
Unlike with some of HOPE Service’s other programs, “Ulu Wini provides us an opportunity to serve people for a longer period of time,” Menino said. Ulu Wini’s programming includes classes and meetings that help families “normalize housing and family traditions,” as well as establish new routines, she added.
The Kids Count report did not include any specific indicators about homelessness.