ORANGE COUNTY – More than 4,600 children in Orange County were living in poverty in 2001, according to census data. That was almost 18 percent of the total number of children living in the County at the time. A decade later, more than 2,300 additional children were living in poverty.

Dr. Colleen Bridger, Director of the Orange County Health Department, said poverty remains one of the biggest, yet least acknowledged issues in our area.

She discussed possible ways to reduce child poverty at a County Board of Health meeting Wednesday night. Bridger explained that Orange County’s child poverty rate is on trend with the majority of other counties.

“Like in a lot of aggregate statistics, we look better than the State average. The challenge is that we still have families who are living in abject poverty in Orange County, and sometimes aggregate statistics can mask that,” Bridger said.

She added, “When you go back to the stereotype for Orange County, you hear that for example we have the lowest unemployment rate. So people, I think, make the next logical step to say ‘Well, if we have the lowest unemployment rate, then our poverty numbers must not be matching other areas in the State.’ That is just not the case.”

The Health Department’s analysis indicated that there are six prevalent pockets of poverty throughout our area, encompassing 21 of the 29 schools in Orange County.

Many poverty indicators, such as the number of children enrolled in Medicaid and the number of students on free or reduced lunch, have increased in the last five years, both countywide and also in both Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County schools.

As of 2011, more than 7,000 children in the county, or 25 percent, were enrolled in Medicaid. More than 30 percent of students enrolled in both school districts received free or reduced lunch.

Long-term Impacts of Child Poverty

Children living in poverty, Bridger explained, are much more likely to experience “adverse childhood events.” Examples include abuse, neglect or a general category of household dysfunction.

“The reason that this is important is because when children are exposed to an adverse childhood event, it structurally affects their brain,” Bridger said.

Research shows that the more adverse events a child experiences will increase the likelihood for chronic diseases, mental health problems, and behaviors that lead to teen pregnancy or the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.

“Those adverse childhood events are extremely linked to adult public health outcomes that we really want to see changed,” she said.

Possible Solutions

While poverty cannot be eliminated immediately, Bridger said that there are ways to address the problem now and prevent future difficulties in our local children’s lives.

“A county government cannot fix poverty. What we can do, however, is mitigate the effects of poverty on children. The only way to do that is through an extremely comprehensive holistic approach.”

The Harlem Children’s Zone Project was launched in New York City and promotes positive environments for area children. Bridger said she hopes to launch a program like that here in Orange County.

“One of the biggest successes that it [the Harlem Children’s Zone Project] showed relatively quickly is that it literally eliminated the racial disparity in math and reading for children in elementary school,” Bridger said.

Durham has a similar program already up and running, called the East Durham Children’s Initiative

As part of her larger goal to implement a program like the Harlem’s Children’s Zone project in Orange County, Bridger will recommend several initiatives at next month’s Board of Health meeting.

A component of her proposal is to create a new program manager position to focus on a community dealing with childhood poverty in our area.