How many students in Sikeston Public Schools are from low-income families who are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program? Well, I was surprised to learn that over 2,000 students, more than half the student body, qualify for the free lunches. That represents just over 52 percent of the total school population and that figure may actually be low because many students at the high school don't apply because of the open campus policy where they can leave the campus for lunch.
So just what does this tell us about our population? Well, first it says we have a disproportionate number of low income residents as measured against others. That is most certainly not all bad and it should come as no major surprise. But it clearly illustrates the growing gap between the haves and the have nots in our community - a gap long on history but growing daily.
Sikeston is by many measures an affluent community. How many times have you heard the yarn that Sikeston once boasted the most millionaires per capita in the United States? Whether that urban legend is true or not is really not important. Sikeston today still has a substantial population of affluence and a growing population of low-income residents. The reasons are as varied as our history.
Does it trouble you that Sikeston Probation and Parole office has doubled in space and the Division of Family Services is planning an expansion to double their space at the same time our school population is in a steady decline? Are any of these related? Does it trouble you that a planned development at the former Missouri Department of Transportation building has stalled because of a lack of interest from major retailers? Or does it trouble you that some out-of-town developers want to take that MoDot building to house the expanded Division of Family Services location?
Does it make you wonder why Kmart would close their Sikeston store while standing firm on older locations in Cape and Poplar Bluff? And asking once again, are any of these factors and events related in any form whatsoever?
There are signs of concern within our community but the pain has not hit close enough to force drastic action on our part. And quite frankly, I'm not smart enough to know what actions to take anyway.
I'm understandably concern that over half of our kids qualify for free lunches. Maybe that says less about their income than it does about a lack of opportunity here. Maybe it says we need desperately to bring jobs and retail outlets to Sikeston to reverse this trend. Those who devote their time to helping grow our community do a splendid job. But sometimes it takes community leaders with no personal agenda to fuel the fires of growth. And maybe - just maybe - our problem is not one of poverty but one of leadership.