If Northwest Arkansas’ unemployment rate is so low the experts question whether there’s even statistical room for it to go lower, why does the region have such a big — and in many cases growing — population of people in poverty?
It will not come as a shock that poverty exists in Northwest Arkansas, although the area’s branded promotional efforts help to reinforce the notion that the region is tantamount to the land flowing with milk and honey promised to Abraham in the Bible’s Old Testament.
Those promotional efforts are important. It’s vital we tout the great positives of our region. Northwest Arkansas is, indeed, a land of milk and honey, but not everyone shares in its bounty.
Consider Fayetteville, a wonderful town that has been a capital of knowledge and education ever since the University of Arkansas was founded in 1871. It’s a growing, vibrant community where one is far more likely to hear a robust debate over how close a building should be to the street or whether there ought to be an ordinance to protect people from being discriminated against than a hearty discussion about the reasons people live in poverty.
I was struck the other day by a story in this newspaper in which reporter Brenda Bernet interviewed Fayetteville Superintendent Matthew Wendt about his reasons for restructuring the district’s leadership. Things have changed over the years, said the man who took over the district a little less than a year ago. Fayetteville schools cannot approach educating a student population the same way it did 20 or 30 years ago because so much has changed, he said.
Of course, there’s the basic issue of more students. But even more significant is another kind of growth, the kind that won’t make it onto any chamber of commerce, advertising and promotion commission or Northwest Arkansas Council fliers.
A larger swath of the students the district educates are in poverty. Twenty years ago, 32 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a program commonly cited as a measure of poverty within a district. Today, that figure is 40 percent. Then, Wendt offered a prediction: Based on enrollment trends, the percentage of the district’s students considered to be in poverty will rise to 50 percent within the next 10 years.
For Wendt’s responsibilities, that’s a challenge to raising academic achievement. To continue growing student performance, the school district will have to figure out ways to help those whose families face poverty or even homelessness perform better academically.
For our communities of Northwest Arkansas, poverty is an drag on all the work to help the region achieve its potential.
“There’s a misperception about the economic prosperity in Northwest Arkansas. While we do have a lot of economic growth and have had a real economic boom over the years, we’ve also had a growth in the number of kids who live in poverty and the percentage of kids who live in poverty,” said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
It’s mind boggling that Northwest Arkansas has a 2.2 percent unemployment rate and yet such a big portion of its population lives in poverty. Benton and Washington counties have more people than a decade ago, and larger percentages of them who live in poverty. From 2005 to 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of people in poverty went from 15.2 to 16.9 percent in Washington County; from 9.1 to 10.8 percent in Benton County.
Among school-age kids, both counties have recovered somewhat from recession-era highs, but we’re still higher than before the recession. In Washington County, the school-age population in poverty grew from 17 percent to 19 percent from 2005 to 2015. In Benton County, it went from 12 to 13.5 percent.
I spoke with several people last week about the issue and will address the issue of poverty again in a future column. For now, as we rightly celebrate the great achievements and lofty goals of Northwest Arkansas, I’m mindful we cannot engage in any full-scale celebrations of economic achievement until there’s a time when Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and the rest of the area can cite a solid trend in declining poverty rates.
Naturally, it’s outstanding to have a worldclass art museum and a minor league baseball team and a growing university. It’s great to have a robust retail segment that’s making strong profits. But can Northwest Arkansas really be considered a place of opportunity and success when its population of people who live in poverty is growing?
That rising tied I’ve heard people talk about over the years really must lift all boats, whether it’s a yacht or a flat-bottom with a 10-horsepower Mercury. But what if you don’t have a boat at all? For those entangled in the anchor chains of poverty, that rising tide can appear more as a threat than an opportunity.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAGreg.
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