CASPER, Wyo. — Some students arrive without food in their bellies. Others don't have winter clothing to protect them from the cold.
Greta Hinderliter has spent 13 years assisting homeless children for the Natrona County School District. When she started out, she identified 19 homeless children. Now, she averages 300 a year.
The district has a better process now for identifying homeless kids. But that alone doesn't account for the increase.
"I have more and more kids that don't have shoes, don't have socks, don't have a winter coat," she said.
Hinderliter's experience reflects a five-year rise in the number of Wyoming children in poverty. An estimated 14 percent of the state's kids lived in poverty last year, up from 11 percent in 2005, according to figures released this week by Wyoming Kids Count.
The trend is slightly more pronounced for kids under age 5. The percentage of young children in poverty increased from 15 percent in 2005 to 19 percent last year.
"My numbers are up, definitely," Hinderliter tells the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/upuLWX). "There are a lot of families who are living on the edge of homelessness."
The increase in poverty rates is largely a result of the recession, said Kids Count Director Marc Homer. Nearly one out of every five children in Wyoming now live in households earning below the federal poverty level -- just more than $22,000 a year for a family of four.
"It means families are having more difficulty providing an adequate lifestyle for their children," he said.
Wyoming's child poverty rate remains below the national average of 20 percent. But it could still have long-lasting impacts on the state, according to Homer.
A study published earlier this year found that adults who experienced poverty as children didn't go as far in school, earned less money and were more likely to report poor overall health. Men were more likely to be arrested and women were more likely to give birth out of wedlock.
"It's in the interest of the state, for quality of life across the board and for economic development, to ensure more children don't slip into poverty," Homer said.
While the poverty trend is being driven by the national economy, decision makers in Wyoming haven't done all they could to take advantage of programs that could help children, Homer said.
The Wyoming Legislature rejected up to $38 million in federal unemployment benefits earlier this year, he noted. The state also chose not to pursue a competitive federal education grant that could have provided up to $50 million in funding.
The state should be taking advantage of such opportunities, Homer argued.
"We are either going to spend a lot of money on the back end trying to incarcerate people ... and deal with kids who aren't achieving academically in the future, or we can begin on the front end and provide the structure that will develop young human beings who will be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps," he said.