The Anne E. Casey Foundation released their “2011 KIDS COUNT Data Book” today, and it did not make for encouraging reading. According to the report, after showing dramatic improvement between 1996 and 2000, the condition of America’s children has been in a significant decline since 2000.
The cause for the downgrading of U.S. childhoods is not hard to put a finger on: growing national poverty. In 2009, 20 percent of children (14.7 million) were growing up poor, up from 17 percent in 2000. According to researcher, that increase represents about 2.5 million more children living in poverty in 2009 than in 2000, and the report suggests that the child poverty rate will continue to increase over the next several years. Child poverty for 2009 ranged from a low of 11 percent in New Hampshire to a high of 31 percent in Mississippi. As the jobless recovery continues just about every state in the nation recorded increasing numbers of children growing up in households without a breadwinner. That meant over 23 million children in the United States lived in families “where no parent had full-time, year-round employment,” an increase from 27 percent in 2008 to a startling 31 percent of U.S. families in 2008. In 2010, home foreclosure haunted the childhoods of four percent of U.S. children.
The news is all the more depressing because it represents such a sharp turnaround from historic progress on childhood deprivation in the recent past. The foundation reports that between 1994 and 2000 the child poverty rate fell by nearly 30 percent, the largest decrease in child poverty since the 1960s and an improvement “experienced by every major racial group and in nearly all of the states.” Since 2000, however, the child poverty rate has increased by 18 percent. Anne E. Casey’s researchers report, “The economic recession of the past few years effectively wiped out all of the gains we made in cutting child poverty in the late 1990s.”
The foundation uses ten indicators “consistent across states and over time” to track the general well being of America’s children, including health, adequacy of income and educational attainment, tracing milestones across a range of developmental stages from birth through early adulthood. At the state level some of these measures can shift dramatically. New Hampshire ranks highest on the composite index, followed by Minnesota and Massachusetts. The three states at the bottom of the ranking are Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
The report details the performance of individual states: “The New England states and a group of states in the Northern Plains all rank relatively high. Except for Maine and Rhode Island, all of the New England states rank in the top 10. In the Northern Plains, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North Dakota are all ranked in the top 10. At the other end of the spectrum, states in the South (both Southeast and Southwest) and Appalachia dominate the lower part of the ranking. The 10 states with the lowest Overall Rank in terms of child well-being are all located in these regions.”
The percentage of children growing up in single parent households increased from 31 percent in 2000 to 34 percent in 2009; that’s 3.1 million more children in 2009 than in 2000. At 8 percent of all births, the percent of low-birthweight babies is eight percent higher than it was in 2000. The rate is 13.4 percent among African Americans, a group which tends to fare significantly worse across measures of well being than other racial categories.
While overall child well-being has stagnated since 2000, according to the report, some areas have shown improvements. One has been the nation’s infant mortality rate. Still high measured against other advanced economies, the U.S. rate had declined since 1990. Unfortunately that trend reversed in 2007 and will bear watching.
Between 2000 and 2007, the child death rate decreased in 40 states. Car accidents accounted for 17 percent of all child deaths in 2007. Nearly half of the children under age 15 who died in traffic crashes were not wearing a seat belt or other restraint, suggesting that many of the accidental deaths could be prevented if parents would just say “buckle up” and use and properly install safety seats.
Today’s neglected children will be tomorrow’s problematic workforce (and not insignificantly the shaky foundation of Social Security for decades to come). They must be able to compete globally with young people in emerging economies coming of age in a period of improved education systems and job preparation in the developing world. Although the percentage of kids not in school has actually dropped from 11 percent of students in 2000 to 6 percent in 2009, the numbers remain troubling. More than 1.1 million teens between the ages of 16 and 19 were not in school and had not graduated from high school in 2009, and 1.6 million teens in that age cohort were neither enrolled in school nor working—149,000 more than in 2008.
“The research and data tell us that children who grow up in low-income families are less likely to successfully navigate life’s challenges and achieve future success,” said Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation. “To decrease the numbers of children who are at risk for bad outcomes as a consequence of economic hardship, we must invest in strategies that can help children reach their full potential. In the wake of the recession, the Casey Foundation urges policymakers to focus on ensuring the next generation of children is healthy, educated, and prepared to compete in a global economy.”
The Casey Foundation recommends six steps to better childhoods:
Strengthen and modernize unemployment insurance (UI) and promote foreclosure prevention and remediation efforts: Economic security is important throughout a child’s development. A continued extension of UI benefits for the long-term unemployed beyond the end of 2011 is recommended if the unemployment rate has not significantly improved. State legislation could be enacted, such as mandatory foreclosure mediation and permanent federal tenant protections so that renters who live in properties at risk for foreclosure do not lose their lease.
Preserve and strengthen existing programs that supplement poverty-level wages, offset the high cost of child care, and provide health insurance coverage for parents and children: Valuable tax credits such as the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit should be preserved, as these credits have been effective in lifting 6.6 million Americans above the federal poverty line (2001). Low- and moderate-income families’ access to subsidized child care should be the priority. While states have done a good job of using Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to provide health insurance coverage for parents and children, states should continue to develop strategies to bridge the payment gaps to ensure that this generation and the next are healthy and strong.
Promote savings and asset protection and help families gain financial knowledge skills: Having access to good financial products can provide safe mechanisms for savings. Innovative pilot programs, such as delivering federal tax refunds electronically to prepaid debit cards, rather than being issued by check, can help prevent situations where a check can be quickly cashed and spent. Several states have adopted legislation to curb high-cost payday loans that can trap a family in a cycle of debt.
Promote responsible parenthood and ensure that mothers-to-be receive prenatal care: Research has shown that children do better when they grow up in an intact two-parent family, both in terms of economic well-being and longer term outcomes. Efforts should be encouraged to find ways to remove disincentives to marriage and to support two committed, married parents as the best environment to raise children. The health of infants and young children is closely tied to the health of their mothers during pregnancy. Expanded access to prenatal care could be given to more pregnant women if states raised the eligibility standard for public health insurance.
Ensure that children are developmentally ready to succeed in school: Home visiting and other parenting support programs can help parents understand the critical role they play in their child’s early development. The tough economic climate has placed some early childhood programs at risk –Head Start and Early Head Start – as federal funds dry up and states face large deficits. As state economies recover, policymakers should continue to support these programs and improve their quality.
Promote reading proficiency by the end of third grade: Reaching the milestone of reading on grade level by the end of third grade is critical to ensure that the next generation of students can compete globally. Deeper connections between the early childhood and K-12 systems and ensuring more consistent standards across states can better serve children and result in increased student achievement.
See how kids are doing in your state: