The University of South Dakota is getting involved in an initiative to assess why Vermillion’s poverty rate is not being addressed as much as it should.
Kelsey Collier-Wise, executive director for United Way of Vermillion, said Clay County has a poverty rate of 24 percent, with Vermillion’s poverty rate reaching nearly 33 percent in 2010.
To better understand what some of the underlying issues may be, the city, the South Dakota Department of Social Services, churches, the school district, the Department of Labor and local charities have joined the United Way of Vermillion to create a task force in an effort to reduce poverty in the area.
USD’s Department of Social Work and the South Dakota KIDS COUNT project are also involved, helping the task force conduct research.
Peter Kindle, associate professor of social work, said his role will primarily be trying to answer what questions the task force has through gathering information.
“We’re still planning, so what the poverty task (force) ends up doing could change pretty substantially,” Kindle said. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly which direction we should go.”
With only two meetings completed, Kindle said it’s too early to tell what the specific goals of the task force will be.
There isn’t much information about Vermillion’s homeless population, because it’s often more of a temporary issue, Collier-Wise said.
“Homelessness flies under the radar,” she said.
Once the task force determines some of the causes of poverty in Vermillion, its members will decide the best course of action to take.
Steps in the right direction
Research is still being conducted about the trends of poverty in Vermillion, but the increase occurred between 2000 and 2010, Collier-Wise said.
“Many people are surprised by the fact that the student population doesn’t have much of an impact on our poverty rate,” Collier-Wise said. “We were also surprised to learn that in families in poverty, most of them have someone working, and over one-third of them have some college education.”
According to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Profile, 17 percent of children in South Dakota are in poverty. Of the 16 different categories included in the the study — economic well-being, education, health and family and community, for example — South Dakota scored 17th overall in the nation.
Carole Cochran, director for the South Dakota KIDS COUNT project, said there’s a lot that goes into addressing poverty and homelessness.
“I think we can do better, and we certainly have made a lot of progress. If you look at those 16 indicators, we improved on 11 of them (gradually since 2005),” Cochran said. “I’m hoping we can continue on and do that and get better.”
As project director, Cochran is responsible for compiling data from all legislative districts and presenting it in a way that people are able to understand. Although KIDS COUNT does not lobby, Cochran said other groups take the information to advocate for their causes.
Cochran said the high poverty levels in Clay County reflect state-wide and national trends.
“There are a lot of single parents — the people who are most in poverty are single parent families and younger children. That’s two groups that I think are big here in Clay County,” Cochran said.
Thirty-four percent of South Dakota children were in single-parent families as of 2012, according to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Profile.
Feeding the community
Along with a 24 percent poverty rate, Clay County has about a 16 percent food insecurity rate as of 2012, according to Feeding America.
Cochran said some people below the poverty threshold in Vermillion may have difficulty accepting help.
“There are certainly a lot of things to offer here,” Cochran said. “I don’t think it’s always easy to go and ask for that though.”
Pat Flanigan, Vermillion Food Pantry and Salvation Army volunteer, agreed with Cochran.
“We’re wondering how many more are out there that we just not aware of,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan has been a food pantry volunteer for about four years and started as a Salvation Army volunteer a few years later. She said through that work, she has seen the need for services “exploding.”
Last summer, Flanigan loaned her tent to a woman who stayed in a campground.
Because Vermillion doesn’t have a homeless shelter, the Vermillion Salvation Army refers people to ones in Yankton, Sioux Falls and Sioux City.
“We are lacking longer term shelter or crisis housing. There are more gaps, and that’s one of the things our Poverty Task Force is looking at,” Collier-Wise said.
Collier-Wise said Vermillion’s poverty and homelessness issues are often ones that surprise the local community, as well as volunteers.
“Until I started doing this, I had no idea,” Flanigan said.
Flanigan and Cochran are waiting to see what Measure 18, which will raise South Dakota’s minimum wage to $8.50 in January, will do for Vermillion residents.
“I certainly think that will give people some breathing room, but we’ll see,” Cochran said.
As Welcome Table, Inc. executive director, John Lushbough is focusing on the county’s food insecurity rate.
“All the surrounding counties in South Dakota have a lower rate than we do. I can’t give you reasons for why that is — it’s really puzzling for a lot of folks that we have that phenomena here in Vermillion,” Lushbough said. “But it does exist.”
Welcome Table is in its 14th year of serving meals to those in need. What started as a monthly service with as many volunteers as there were recipients has now become a weekly meal with an average of 150 people.
Lushbough is also heavily involved with the Vermillion Weekend Backpack Program, which supplies about 200 bags of food for children every Friday.
“I guess that’s what keeps me energized, is all the volunteers,” Lushbough said. “None of this would happen without the volunteers and the generosity.”
Thad Vavrek, a graduate student, is another volunteer in the community, at USD.
Vavrek and two undergraduate students put together a menu selection to give kids more options for the backpack program, because there’s often little variation week-to-week.
Lushbough is testing the new menu system this week on 15 high school students receiving food from the backpack program.
Vavrek said volunteering puts local poverty in perspective for many students, but he was aware of them prior to working with Lushbough.
As a former New Jersey resident, Vavrek said it’s not difficult to get used to seeing poverty and homelessness everyday. So although a lack of visibility may result in a lack of awareness, it’s not always a solution, he said.
Lushbough said as services like Welcome Table and the backpack program are able to accommodate more people, volunteers struggle between celebrating growth and knowing that the need is increasing right along with it.
“Humans are very good at ignoring what’s in their face,” Vavrek said.
(Photo: Volunteers go through an assembly line to fill bags for the Vermillion Weekend Backpack Program. The program supplies about 200 bags of food to children every Friday. Ally Krupinsky / The Volante)