Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Ky. ranked 34th for overall well-being of children in Kids Count report; advocates say key to improvement is to address poverty

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As long as more than one every four Kentucky children live in poverty, the state will struggle to improve the overall well-being of its children, says a Kentucky Youth Advocates release about the 2017 Kids Count Data Book, released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The book ranks Kentucky 34th in the overall well-being of its children, where it has hovered since 2012 when the current criteria for the measure were adopted.

“We know that economic well-being drives every other aspect of this report," KYA Executive Director Terry Brooks said. "Unless and until we get serious about changing the trajectory of poverty for kids, we will not see substantial change. While we must battle a tradition of poverty in this state, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders.”

Kentucky ranks 39th for economic well-being, down one slot from last year. Contributors for this category included 34 percent of the state's children living in homes where neither parent has secure employment; 26 percent living in households with a high housing-cost burden; and 9 percent of its teens between the ages of 16 and 19 not working or attending school.

The report did offer several bright spots, including continued improvement of Kentucky's education ranking, up to 24th from 27th last year, and fewer Kentucky teens getting pregnant.

The report offers a state-by-state assessment that measures 16 indicators to determine the overall well-being of children. The latest data are for 2015, and is compared with data from the last six or so years earlier. The report focuses on four major domains: economic security, education, health and family and community security.

Health continues to be Kentucky's highest ranking, though the state dropped four spots since last year's report, from 16th to 22nd. The state saw an increase in the number of child and teen deaths, to 31 per 100,000, up from 28 per 100,000 in 2014.

Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said decreasing the state's smoking rate could decrease the number of babies born with low birth weight, which is known to increase a child's risk of short- and long- term health complications as well as being associated with impaired cognitive development. Almost 9 percent of Kentucky babies are born with low-birthweights.

“Smoking during pregnancy accounts for as many as 30 percent of low-birthweight babies,” Chandler said in the release. “The foundation is committed to ensuring healthier infants by working with advocates and local communities to promote smoke-free ordinances, ensuring that expectant mothers have easy access to effective tobacco treatment, and raising the state tax on cigarettes. Each of these strategies will reduce Kentucky’s high smoking rate. We must get serious about protecting our children from the harmful effects of tobacco.”

In education rankings, Kentucky is sixth in the nation for high-school graduation, with only 12 percent of its students not graduating on time. The bad news is that 60 percent of the state's three- and four-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool; 60 percent of its fourth graders aren't proficient in reading; and 72 percent of its eighth graders aren't proficient in math -- and these numbers haven't changed much since 2009.

Brooks optimistically looks to recent legislative changes as possible ways to improve these poor education outcomes.

"A stronger focus on career and technical education, the new potential for innovative public charter schools, differentiated career ladders for teachers, and the newly created school accountability system from Senate Bill 1, championed by Senator Mike Wilson, are all hopeful indicators that the best days for Kentucky schoolhouses are on the horizon,” Brooks said.

Kentucky dropped one spot in the "family and community" domain to 38th, a category that shows 36 percent of the state's children live in single-parent families; 11 percent live in families where the household head lacks a high school degree; and 16 percent live in high-poverty areas -- all measures that stayed about the same as last year.

However, the one measure in this category that continues to improve is the state's teen birth rate, which dropped to 32 teen births per 1,000 in 2015, from 35 per 1,000 in 2014, a 9 percent drop. And compared 2010, it's dropped by 30 percent. It remains well above the national average, 22 per 1,000.

The Kentucky Youth Advocates release calls for "common-ground solutions" to improve the well-being of Kentucky's children including: reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program; implementing proven strategies to decrease smoking rates, including smoke-free laws and increased tobacco taxes; family-focused tax reforms; and investing in child welfare programs that keep families together.

“Without fundamental improvement in lifting kids out of poverty, we face a losing battle on improving education outcomes, safety, and our children’s health. Solutions abound and we are calling on the governor and the General Assembly to build a budget for children in 2018,” Brooks said.

Click on a chart to view a larger version of it.

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