Small-town Nebraska has a poverty problem
From breakfast to dinner rush, Chara Pech stood behind the counter at Burger King. After moving to Hastings in 2021, she frequently worked 70-hour weeks as a supervisor at the fast food chain.
With four kids at home, she couldn’t afford to work fewer shifts. Getting a higher paying job seemed like it would require too many hours back in school.
“I just felt like I’m always in this predicament,” Pech said. “Just working and working and working.”
Pech’s predicament with poverty is familiar to many Americans – especially in rural counties. Since the 1960s, census data has shown higher rates of poverty in non-metro regions of the country.
Twenty Nebraska counties had a child poverty rate higher than the national average in 2020. All 20 counties have populations under 40,000, according to U.S. census data collected by The University of Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs research.
Now, in some smaller Nebraska towns, local community leaders are fighting back, determined to shrink poverty in their hometowns. Since 2016, three separate initiatives in three different spots – Hastings, Nebraska City and Red Cloud – have tried to tackle the issue in different ways.
Bridging Forward launched in June with a lofty goal: Reduce poverty by 30% by 2030 in Hastings’ Adams County and three neighboring rural counties.
It’s the organization that gave Pech assistance in January 2022 after she got sober and decided to go back to school.
“It took them sitting me down and talking to them about it and showing me that I can do it,” Pech said.
Today, Pech drives home from 8-hour shifts as a personal care assistant to help her kids with their homework. Then she stays up studying to earn her certified nursing assistant’s license.
“As busy as it gets I get to remind myself that for the last eight years I was busy doing nothing,” Pech said.
Bridging Forward has the goal of alleviating poverty, not just managing it. That goal that sets it apart from previous programs in the area, said Brady Rhodes of the Community Impact Network, a partner of Bridging Forward. Program recipients work with staff to plan toward high earning careers with openings in the area, Rhodes said.
“We have these jobs that are open, that are possible for folks where they weren't possible for them in the past,” Rhodes said. “We have a real opportunity to lift folks out of poverty with a little bit of support.”
Pech was connected to a temporary job in a Hastings memory care facility. She’s on her way to earning her CNA license, a job that will provide enough income for her to go to college for a degree in social work.
“I see my kids not being in poverty because I feel like in some ways I broke a chain,” Pech said.
Pech is an early success of the program, but the goal of alleviating 30% of poverty in the area won’t be an easy task.
“Rural poverty can be very deep and hidden,” Rhodes said. “A lot of folks are maybe not used to asking for help and so finding the folks who need the help, who maybe have been in that situation for multiple generations, that's half the battle.”
A heightened emphasis on work ethic and stigma around aid in small towns can add a barrier for those experiencing poverty in rural communities, said Jennifer Sherman, a sociology professor at Washington State University.
It's important for people to be recognized for the fact that they want to work and that they aren’t just asking for help, even when they need it, Sherman said.
“It's one of the paradoxes that makes rural poverty difficult to fight,” Sherman said.
Another difficulty of rural poverty is the loss of high paying jobs in small towns. People with the most resources are often encouraged to leave rural communities, Sherman said.
When Ashley Armstrong moved to the Red Cloud area from Kansas City in 2011, she quickly identified one reason families with resources might move away from her new hometown – the lack of childcare.
When she had her third child, the limited childcare options were almost full, Armstrong said. To fix the issue, Armstrong and several other residents began planning for the Valley Child Development Center, which opened its doors in 2018.
The center provides care to children from 6 weeks to twelve years, accepts families on child care subsidies and offers scholarships for qualifying families – making quality child care more possible for families of low income in the area, said Armstrong, vice president of the center’s board of directors.
“We know that there are more families out there,” Armstrong said. “That is always our goal, to continue to get families on subsidy and into our center.”
Beyond access to childcare, the center has helped with recruitment for local businesses. Two nurses with young children told Armstrong they chose to work in Red Cloud versus other towns in the area because of childcare access.
In 2016 a similarly child-focused, anti-poverty initiative began in Nebraska City.
Despite the town’s association with orchards and historic mansions, poverty is prevalent in the community.
When comparing the poverty rate of people 18-years-old and younger, Nebraska City’s is 24% higher than Nebraska’s average, according to The UNO’s Center for Public Affairs research and the U.S. census.
“You will see this amazing historic home and you will see a home next door that is probably being discussed if it should be demolished,” said Stacie Higgins the founder of EDGE Nebraska City.
Thanks to EDGE, every Nebraska City child has a personal library of at least 27 books by the time they start the third grade. The program’s work doesn’t stop with book donations. EDGE plans to reduce the poverty rate in its city by 2036.
“We cannot assume a book is going to take care of this,” Higgins said. “You have to commit to the full process of here's the book, here's the relationship, here's the next step.”
Twenty years after its founding, EDGE plans to erode decades-long poverty cycles. The program works to connect Nebraska City students with the community and local resources and encourage lifelong learning.
“One of our challenges is people might say, ‘Oh, it's that book program,’” Higgins said. “We want to be more than that to people.”
Adam DeBilzan teaches first grade in Nebraska City and serves as a member of EDGE’s board of directors. He grew up in poverty, similar to the students he now tries to reach through the anti-poverty group.
“A program like EDGE could’ve gotten us out of that underdog story,” DeBilzan said.
DeBilzan has felt the program’s positive impact as a teacher.
“Their excitement to read has improved,” DeBilzan said of his students. “They’re proud of their books.”
According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, proficient reading skills by the end of the third grade is one of the strongest predictors of whether a student will graduate high school. Nebraska City’s high school graduation rate is higher than the state average, but in 2020 only 20% of the population had obtained a bachelor's degree or higher. The state average: 33%.
“We know that kids that read at grade level by third grade are more successful students,” Higgins said. “It doesn't mean 4.0, it doesn't mean full ride scholarship, it means they're more confident students.”
One of the best ways to promote early literacy is 20 minutes of at-home, daily reading, experts say. That goal previously seemed unachievable for some Nebraska City families with only a few books in the home.
Amy Callen’s oldest son Connor was in one of the first kindergarten classes to get a “book bestie.” Since participating in EDGE, Callen has seen Connor and his siblings grow more interested in reading.
“They not only come home with a book but they’re excited about it as well,” Callen said.
She hopes the excitement her kids have to read the EDGE books when they get back from school is happening in other homes across Nebraska City.
Connor is now a fourth grader and his book collection has been passed down to his younger siblings. He now participates in Citizen’s EDGE which aims to connect students to their community.
While EDGE works toward the ultimate goal of reducing poverty, Higgins has already made an impact on Nebraska City students by fostering a love for reading and a love for the Nebraska City community, Callen said.
This work – in Nebraska City, in Hastings and in Red Cloud – is only beginning.
“I will know we've been successful when I run into a 25-year-old on the street and they can answer some simple questions like: ‘I graduated from high school, I can provide for my family…, I'm actively engaged in my community and I’m still interested in learning,’” Higgins said.
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