New data from the U.S. Census and the Pasco School District affirm the harsh realities facing thousands of Pasco families. Over the past 10 years, there were double-digit increases in the number of people living in poverty in portions of the county. Even more eye-opening is that more than half of the children countywide now qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch each day in public school.
High poverty rates mean children are likely going to school from homes where unemployment, financial constraints, substance abuse and neglect are common problems. The by-products are less supervision of children outside of school, less help with homework and simply less parental involvement in a child's education.
Clearly, not all of the county is poor. Over the past 10 years, the poverty rate fell in much of central Pasco as rural areas turned into suburban subdivisions, but the U.S. Census also showed poverty increasing by more than 10 percent in Shady Hills, Dade City and Zephyrhills and the census measured smaller spikes in Trinity and others pockets of west Pasco.
The most commonly accepted indicator of poverty in schools — children receiving free or reduced-price lunches — is up significantly. Three years ago, 42.9 percent of the district's students received the discounted meals. Today, the figure is 55 percent, or more than 36,000 kids.
Within the schools, it means more modest lists of parent-provided classroom supplies, fewer field trips because of the expense, and more requests for clothing and other donations to help needy families.
But that is only part of the equation. The rise in economic hardship comes with a simultaneous reduction in school district funding due to recession-driven drops in sales and property tax collections across the state. The constrained budget resulted in fewer counselors and social workers to meet a growing workload of students needing aid. All of it translates to classroom educators trying to teach a greater number of children who are distracted by their domestic circumstances.
Some of the statistics of the bleak economy are well publicized including Pasco's unemployment rate (12 percent), number of people without medical insurance (70,000 according to state estimates) and homeless children (3,500, double the total from three years ago).
Less well known is that the kids next door are worthy of greater attention because they could be going to school hungry each day.