Our view: The need for ‘Nurse’s Pantry’ program is crystal clear

We all should be rightly concerned at a tidbit of information from Dan Flood Elementary School Principal Marlena Nockley. While answering questions about (and praising) the new “Nurse’s Pantry” initiative launched with help from the United Way of Wyoming Valley, Nockley noted 91 percent of her school’s students come from families deemed “economically disadvantaged.”

It’s hard to picture a situation in this country where fewer than one out of every 10 children you look at are at economic risk. Yet the numbers are bleak on a broad scale as well.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2000 Luzerne County had 11.1 percent residents living below the federal poverty level. In the latest estimate, it was 15.7 percent. Mind you, “federal poverty level” is not the same as “economically disadvantaged.” Even a cursory comparison shows that: Dallas School District, one of the wealthiest in Luzerne County, has nearly 18 percent of enrollment in the economically disadvantaged group; Dallas Township, a big chunk of the district has a 9.2 percent poverty rate.

But the increase in poverty mirrors an increase in the percent of “economically disadvantaged” students in our area, and the trend needs to be reversed. Worse yet, the percentage of children under 18 who live below the federal poverty level is even higher than the county’s overall rate: 28.8 percent. That rate has doubled since 2000. The trend needs to be reversed.

The Nurse’s Pantry is an effort to help do just that, by applying a relatively small amount of money — $12,500 from the United Way — at a leverage point where it can have the most impact. In this case, United Way saw how many days low-income students miss class for easily-fixed problems liketoo-few shirts or pants, lack of hygiene products or lice treatment shampoo.

Fix those problems as soon as they arise, the reasoning goes, and you reduce the amount of lost school time. Keep the kids in school so they don’t start falling behind, and you increase their academic success, their chances to graduate, and ultimately their chance to break out of the cycle of poverty that so often inflicts low-income children.

That’s been the objective of the local United Way’s “Poverty to Possibility” initiative launched four years ago, after an extensive review of the agency’s resources and priorities. The point of best leverage has always been helping children avoid the failures and shortcomings that poverty evokes, by providing support in education, health support and financial stability.

The initiative has routinely looked for programs that have lasting impact, like the affiliation with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library or the “Real Men Read” effort. It has focused on, as they saying goes, giving a hand up, not a hand out.

The Nurse’s Pantry is just the latest in this long-term initiative. Only time will tell if helping grade school students deal with lice and a lack of clean clothes lowers our area’s poverty rate, but it is a smart, economical approach to the bigger issue, and one part of a solution to a persistent problem. United Way deserves kudos — and support — for it all.