When it comes to eliminating poverty in Kern County — a seemingly insurmountable task given its pervasiveness — the entire community must get involved, a national expert told hundreds of local school employees, social workers, mental health providers and other caregivers Thursday.

Donna Beegle, a national poverty expert, highlighted the struggles and barriers that exist as communities attempt to overcome poverty during a day-long workshop downtown hosted by the Kern County Network for Children.

“We have people from all over this county who we know for whatever reason are not able to get out of the recession,” Kern County Network for Children Executive Director Tom Corson said. “We need to find a way as a community to turn the tide on poverty.”

It’s prevalent in Kern County, where 22 percent of the county’s nearly 900,000 residents live below the federal poverty level. The national average hovers around 14 percent. Roughly 37 percent of all children under 5 years old in Kern also live in poverty, according to the Kern County Network for Children’s 2017 report card.

Beegle said the solution isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan, and won’t happen overnight. The impacts of poverty, however, are far-reaching.

Children living in impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to go to lower-achieving schools, struggle for an education, and continue a generational cycle of poverty, Beegle said.

“That should not be allowed,” Beegle said. “How do we make all of our schools ‘the good schools’ where everyone wants to send their children? We have work to do.”

The end result of all that poverty? Those whom are impoverished are more likely to die an average of 15 years younger than somebody born into the middle class, Beegle said.

Communication at all levels — not only between service providers and clients, but also between community members with each other — needs work.

Often service providers aren’t communicating effectively enough with impoverished clients, Beegle said.

Roughly 96 percent of individuals living in the deepest pockets of poverty interviewed by Beegle said they didn’t know what to do next after leaving a professional’s office.

“We’re not communicating,” Beegle said.

There’s also issues with community organizations, including health providers, law enforcement, mental health providers, caregivers and social workers not communicating effectively with one another, Beegle said. She stressed the need to foster better relationships among various community agencies Thursday.

“No one entity can address the complexities of poverty,” Beegle said. “When we’re doing it in silos, what happens is we do this very piecemeal approach, and at best it helps families cope with poverty, but doesn’t help them get out and stay out.”

Meanwhile, policy makers often cite a lack of funding as a roadblock to creating meaningful systems to defeat poverty while not considering the value of upstream, preventative care, Beegle said.

She spoke about a woman with diabetes who couldn’t afford her insulin or syringes to inject it with. She reused needles and stretched her supply. She was taken to her local hospital’s emergency department by ambulance a handful of times and had multiple pacemaker operations. The time, resources and cost of care that was ultimately paid for by taxpayers through Medicaid could have been skirted if she could have afforded her insulin, Beegle said.

The diabetes could have been prevented if she had access to healthy, nutritional food that is often not affordable for those living on the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which allows for about $1.50 per meal, Beegle said.

“We spend money on the community, but usually not on the symptoms, and not on the preventative measures we really reap the benefits of,” Beegle said.

That healthcare paradox, however, will likely not be addressed before poverty ends. So community members need to become innovative and think of out-of-the-box solutions, Beegle said.

During a workshop in a Washington state town, Beegle asked a school district superintendent to seek affordable housing on a limited income, and to tell landlords he had five kids and a felony on his record. He came back at the end of the day unable to find any housing, Beegle said. Nobody would rent to a convicted felon, and if they were willing, they wouldn’t house five kids in a two or three bedroom apartment within his price range.

So moved by the experience, the superintendent worked with his local housing authority to allocate several acres of district land to affordable housing, Beegle said.

“What can I do right now?” Beegle said. “That’s the question people need to ask themselves.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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