Child poverty on the rise in San Juan County

Steve Garrison
Catherine Knowlton, an assistant food program director at the ECHO Food Bank, puts together a Christmas food box Saturday at the food bank in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – The percentage of children in San Juan County living in poverty rose 2.4 percent in 2014, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2013, there were 9,332 children in San Juan County living in poverty, which is 27 percent of the general children population, according to the bureau's findings. In 2014, that population increased to 9,772 children, or 29.4 percent of the general population.

The overall percentage of the population living in poverty decreased by 0.8 percent, from 27,265 individuals living in poverty in 2013 to 25,680 individuals in 2014, according to the data.

Statewide, childhood poverty shrank by 2.1 percent between 2013 and 2014, and the general population living in poverty declined by 0.8 percent.

Sara Kaynor, executive director of the ECHO Food Bank in Farmington, said Friday her organization, which predominantly serves families and the elderly, has seen an increase in the need for its services since 2013.

"It's gradually gone up," she said. "It's not a dramatic change, not like we saw in 2008-2009, when the recession hit and really slammed San Juan County."

Kaynor said the food bank's emergency backpack program, which supplies local elementary schools with backpacks filled with food for distribution to students, has expanded significantly in the past year.

She said the program expanded from 19 participating schools in the 2013-2014 school year to 24 participating schools in the 2014-2015 school year.

Kaynor said there has been an increase in the need for services at the same time there has been a decrease in funding.

Kaynor said BHP Billiton and its employees provided nearly one-third of the food bank's funding in 2015, but that funding will likely disappear when BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal ends its operating contract at the Navajo Mine in December 2016.

Volunteers and staff members work together Saturday as they pack Christmas boxes with food at ECHO Food Bank in Farmington.

"As they fade out, we don't know what the new companies will be doing," Kaynor said. "A new manager for Navajo Mine and a new owner for San Juan (Mine). That is a really scary change for us."

Kaynor said local oil-and-gas companies have limited their donations since the downturn in gas prices took place.

"It's just a gentle increase in need and an equal decrease in resources," Kaynor said. "They are going in opposite directions, which is never good."

The federal agency's estimates are based on numerous sources of data, including the American Community Survey, federal tax records and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The U.S. Census Bureau's statistics are used to allocate Title I funding to school districts based on the number and percentage of low-income children who are enrolled.

The bureau reports that 26 percent, or 820 counties, had a statistically significant increase in poverty between 2007 and 2014. Only 1 percent of counties had a statistically significant decrease in poverty during that period.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.