Commentary: County needs coordinator to monitor aid to needy families

A growing number of families in Shenandoah County depend on help from governmental and nonprofit agencies just to get by.

Last year, 44 percent of children in our public schools received free or reduced cost meals. This year the figure may reach 50 percent.

The food pantries in our area are struggling to meet the growing demand. Hundreds of young children take home a backpack of food from school each Friday to help them through the weekend. Many hundreds of our children depend on the Empty Stocking for their Christmas presents, on the Rotary for their winter coat and on the Sheriff’s Office for their school supplies. But is this really what we want? Poor nutrition and a lack of basic essentials slow down brain development, impair health and leave children less ready to learn — so why do we keep letting this happen?

Shouldn’t we be asking what it would take to effectively address the needs of poor families in our county? A good place to start is to accept that things have changed. Today, the vast majority of low income young children are being raised by parents who work and who have completed high school and taken some college credits. It is a mistake to think that if people would only complete high school and get a job that they can provide security for their children. Economic insecurity today is caused by low-paying jobs that leave parents at the end of a long week without enough money to cover their families’ basic needs.

People see a need and want to help. But in Shenandoah County this has led to an expanding patchwork quilt of helping agencies — some governmental, some nonprofit, some all-volunteer, some with paid administrators and staff, some dependent entirely on local donations, and some receiving federal and state funds.

Is anyone in Shenandoah County monitoring what is happening, and asking whether this array of helping agencies is addressing the needs and doing so in a cost-effective way?

Take hunger. Are the multiple governmental and nonprofit helping agencies eliminating hunger in our county? Is the food they provide nutritious and delivered at a reasonable cost?

Take shelter. How many families each year are saved from having their water and electricity disconnected, and how many are not? How many families are helped to keep their home when they get behind with rent, and how many are not?

How many families are rapidly rehoused into decent housing after being evicted, and how many are not? What is the total amount of money being spent on such services by the various helping agencies involved? Where do these funds come from? And what percentage is spent on administration?

Too many agencies make it difficult to coordinate help, and too many paid officers make it difficult to achieve cost-effectiveness. But is anyone monitoring how well things are working? When nonprofits and contractors do the work that government agencies used to do, it is not always cheaper or better. But who locally is monitoring how well things are working?

We badly need a careful review of what we have and where we are headed, with a view to crafting effective strategies for the future. If the county reaches 50 percent of children receiving free or reduced cost meals, it becomes eligible for Summer Food Service Program Funds. These can be used to feed needy children throughout the summer, and can be combined with recreational and educational programs to leave children more ready to learn when the schools reopen. But the deadline to apply is late April.

The county recently received insurance reimbursement for the destroyed county Alms House. The Alms House was the model for helping the poor in the 18th century. What can we craft that will work today and will continue our county’s long history of compassion and action?

Ann McBroom is executive director of A Small Hand specialist infant pantry in Edinburg.