Kids Count report finds Ky. remains in the bottom 1/3 of states for children’s well-being; is this a predictor of the state’s future?

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

If Kentucky’s future lies in the well-being of its children, there’s reason to worry, because a recent report shows that Kentucky consistently remains in the bottom one-third of states for this measure.

The 2016 Kids Count report ranks Kentucky 35th in the overall well-being of its children, down from 34th last year. The state showed a significant improvement in its health ranking and a further drop in its teen birth rate, but otherwise didn’t show much change from last year’s report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kentucky Youth Advocates.

“The real issue is not a drop or increase of one position, but rather that Kentucky continues to be in the bottom one-third of all states,” KYA Executive Director Terry Brooks said in a news release. “Are we really content with the idea that two-thirds of America’s children are better off than Kentucky kids?”

The annual report offers a state-by-state assessment that measures 16 indicators to determine the overall well-being of children. The latest data are for 2014, 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.

Kentucky continues to rank highest in health, climbing to 16th from 24th in 2015, 28th in 2014 and 31st in 2013. Contributors included a continued drop in the number of children without health insurance (4 percent); a 15 percent decrease in child and teen mortality, fewer teens abusing alcohol or drugs (4 percent) and improvements in the percentage of low-birthweight babies (8.8 percent).

The state’s greatest drop among the rankings was in economic security, going down to 37th from 32nd last year. Education (27th) saw a slight improvement from the past two years and the family and community (38th) rankings remained similar to the past three years.

The release notes that the state now ranks 10th for the percentage of children with health insurance.

“We are seeing better outcomes for kids in Kentucky, and expanded health coverage and access to quality care play a vital role in making that happen,” Susan Zepeda, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in the release. “Research shows that when parents have health coverage, their children are more likely to also be signed up for health insurance.”

Another bright spot in the report is that the state’s teen birth rate continues to drop. It declined 34 percent from 2008 to 2014. While Kentucky still has one of the nation’s highest teen birth rates, it dropped to 35 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 in 2014, down from 39 per 1,000 in 2013 and 53 per 1,000 in 2008. The national average is 24 per 1,000, an all-time low.

Kentucky consistently ranks lowest in the “family and community” domain, with 35 percent of its children living in single-parent families; 12 percent living in families where the household head lacks a high school degree; and 16 percent living in high-poverty areas, which are neighborhoods where more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty.

“Kentucky will thrive when policies that support the whole family, caregiver and child, are implemented,” Adrienne Bush, executive director of Hazard Perry County Community Ministries, said in the release.

And though the state’s education ranking improved to 27th from 30th, not much has changed in these indicators since the foundation started doing this report. The bottom line is that more than half of fourth graders (60 percent) still can’t read at a national proficiency level and that the majority of eighth graders (72 percent) still aren’t proficient in math. (In 2007, these indicators were 67 percent and 73 percent respectively.)

“Student performance should alarm parents and business leaders and jolt Kentucky leaders into making fundamental education reform a policy priority to ensure college and career readiness,” Brooks said.

In addition, more than half the state’s three-and four-year-olds (58 percent) don’t attend pre-school and 17 percent of its high school students don’t graduate on time.

Perhaps the direst message from the report is about the state’s economic well-being. One in four Kentucky children live in poverty (26 percent), a rate that has remained higher than it was pre-recession when it was 23 percent, says the release. Nationally, the child poverty rate is 22 percent.

“Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development,” says the report. “Poverty can impede cognitive development and a child’s ability to learn.”

The report also says 35 percent of Kentucky’s children live in homes with parents who don’t have secure employment, which places the state in the bottom 10 states for this indicator. It also found that 28 percent live in households with a high housing-cost burden.

The release suggested “bipartisan solutions” to improve the well-being of Kentucky’s children, including expanding oral health coverage; supporting school-based health centers; education reform that includes public charter schools, expanded child care assistance and family-focused tax reforms.

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