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Hurdles to Scouting for Low-Income Families

I got asked to speak to our district committee recently about challenges our pack has faced, recruiting from a low-income area of our city. I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have, because all districts have some low-income families, and these families are often ones that receive the greatest benefit from Scouting. What are challenges faced in your area, and how do you meet them?

I have observed that:

  • Transportation is a big factor. Many families have one vehicle, which may not always be available for Scouts. Some do not drive at all, and so are limited to bus-route meeting locations. Families that use bussing often cannot attend events due to the extended amount of time it takes to use bus service.
  • Siblings are a big factor. Older sibling activities may trump scouting, where there are scheduling conflicts in a single-parent or single-vehicle household. Younger siblings can be overwhelming for a parent to bring along to a den meeting where they are asked to focus on a different child.
  • Scheduling is tough. Low-income often means working second shift, which can prevent a family from being able to attend Scouts entirely during the week.
  • Money does matter. The cost to enter Scouting is low, when spread over time, but quite spendy up front if you are on a tight budget. Our unit only charges national dues and the council’s insurance premium, and offers scholarships from the council, but then there’s the handbook and about $50 worth of uniform (more if they are pressured into getting pants/belt/socks/hat at the Scout Shop), once we get them in the door. Our pack has started collecting uniform shirts, and developed a policy where they can be loaned, and ultimately given, to Scouts who participate regularly. We do this with the financial support of our charter org.
  • Communication. Many units rely on email, and many lower-income families do not have internet at home, instead using only their mobile devices for information. This may mean Facebook or texted replies are the only way to reach someone (and you hope they don’t run out of texts before the next reload kicks in).
  • Fundraising is hard. When popcorn costs $20 and schools are fundraising aggressively too, the “buying to support you” market gets flooded quickly. Teachers are often happy to purchase popcorn, but they are finite in quantity. Some neighborhoods are not conducive to door-to-door selling, either because of physical safety or building policies against solicitation. This means popcorn booths in local stores (or in a more affluent neighborhood) are often the only popcorn sales a Scout has.

In our town, we also have a large East African population, many of whom are themselves refugees, or only one or two generations removed. At some point it was pointed out to me that a big component of the refugee experience is effectively camping, and so camping can be a PTSD trigger. Scouting’s emphasis on camping, in those cases, is an automatic turn-off.

That last subject is something I would love to know how to overcome. It would be a wonderful thing, I believe, for our Scouting community to include our immigrant community, and that shared experience could go a long way towards bridging what is too often a cultural divide. It would be lovely for a local mosque to become a charter organization, alongside the numerous churches that already are. I know there are such units in the Twin Cities, but haven’t found a connection to learn more.

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I’m not in the right geographic area to contribute to your local knowledge (I’m on southern California), but I can certainly agree that many of these are issues I faced as a scout growing up in Louisiana. My “local” troop when I was living with my dad wasn’t too far away (walking to biking distance), but once I moved to live with my mom, it was more than an hour each way by bus. There weren’t any troops in my area that I could find (and I liked many of the other scouts in my troop), so I stayed.

I’m old enough that phone trees and newsletters were our modes of communication, but there were plenty of us whose “discretionary utilities” (e.g. phone service) often took a back seat to more critical issues (e.g. rent, food). The same issue often impacted transport, as you pointed out. I lucked into a second-hand backpack at a flea market, and I wore that thing until the webbing all gave out.

Regarding the question of outreach to other faiths about sponsoring units (or just promoting scouting within their community), I would see if religious leaders affiliated with your unit have contacts. I’ve noticed that many of the faith leaders with whom I have had contact (we have various sects of Christianity, Hindus, Judaism and Buddhists represented in our unit) know at least one or two faith leaders from other religious groups. That might be a resource to leverage.

Your council’s religious emblems program coordinators might have contacts in various faith groups who would be willing to discuss scouting, and possibly put you in contact with units that they know of from their own faith groups.

On the subject of camping having negative associations, I can see that, although it’s not something I would have thought of myself. Maybe leaders could reach out to professionals in the metal health community working with refugees to see if they have any insights into how to make it a more welcoming experience. It sounds like it’s a potentially large enough question that it might be something the council should undertake, maybe under the auspices of the international committee. This certainly sounds like something that would expand understanding of the experiences of people from other countries. I know we have large refugee populations down here in SoCal. I wonder if one or more of our local councils has done anything…

Is there anyone on here from Northern Star Council, who is aware of a unit chartered by a mosque?

I’m low income and an assistant leader/nova counselor. It’s important for my children to do scouting but it’s a struggle! In my district, scholarships are only available to scouts that sell popcorn. With two children in Scouts now, it easily eats up our entire “fun” budget for the month if I buy one tin of popcorn from each of my children. None of my family has “extra” money either, as all of our relatives are now of retirement age and a fixed income. Because I’m disabled I don’t have co-workers to sell to, and because we have a large pack the school staff doesn’t buy popcorn or girl scout cookies because they’d go broke. What’s left are show and sells. But since we have a small car and can’t bring the tables and popcorn, we’re stuck with only doing middle time slots which fill up FAST. Last year we got one. Fundraising is great for the kids with wealthy families who have parents that work in well paid offices. But those usually aren’t the kids that depend on fundraising to pay for expenses and to acquire scholarships. My best advice, set aside a few prime show and sell spots (with transportation for tables/popcorn) for your families that really need to sell something. I know it doesn’t sound “fair” but it may be the only shot they have at selling popcorn and making any kind of dent in covering dues/camp/fun scout activities.

Hi, @Carolyn_S,

You might try reaching out to the Islamic Council on Scouting:

http://www.islamiccouncilonscouting.org/

Their website is pretty basic, but they might have contacts with unit leaders in the MSP area. They also have a monthly roundtable conference call that might be a good resource to reach out to unit leaders.

I have a troop like you speak of,
I founded and am the chartered org for a refugee troop
here’s a writeup with my 2 cents about it, for what its worth:

(sorry I am on Scoutbook for the first time, so Im not sure if I will see any notification or response on here!)

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In rural NH, we also have challenges with low income families. Popcorn is not a popular item and is not viable for many to sell. We do other fundraising events, like a giant yard sale which earns money for the unit and we tell parents that if they volunteer for two hours, they will earn $10 off Pack dues. We also do bake sales at our local park & rec soccer games. This year, we sold refreshments (hotdogs/soda) at a summer concert in the park.

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