The new Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation lists Kentucky as 37th in the nation in overall child well-being. That's down four spots from last year's ranking of states based on four factors: education, health, economics, and strength of family and community.
The 2018 data book shows gains in some areas for children in the commonwealth, and losses in others, according to Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. He appeared on KET's Connections to discuss the report and its implications for public policy.
For much of the past decade, says Brooks, the economic numbers in the Kids Count report held bad news for Kentucky youth. But that appears to be changing.
“This year, every economic well-being indicator shows improvement,” says Brooks.
The report looks at the numbers of children living in poverty, kids with parents who lack secure employment and living in a family with high housing costs, and teen drop-outs who are unemployed. Brooks attributes some of the gains in those areas to an improving national economy. But he tempers the improvements with a dose of reality.
“That is really good news that each of those indicators improved,” says Brooks. “By the same token we cannot gloss over that that still means that 250,000 little boys and girls in Kentucky live in poverty. More than 330,000 kids live in homes where neither parent has secure employment.
Brooks says he hopes the gains will inspire state lawmakers to enact policies that can further strengthen economic prospects for families. He suggests implementing a state earned income tax credit for low- and middle-income working parents, as well as legislation to address predatory lending practices and to support micro-enterprise zones to promote economic development in struggling neighborhoods.
If economic factors took a turn for the better this year, health factors took a turn for the worse, according to Brooks. The percentage of low birth-weight babies increased slightly, as did the number of child and teen deaths.
Low birth weight can present immediate health problems as was as longer-term issues, including diabetes, obesity, and developmental disabilities. Brooks says the most common factor contributing to low birth weight is tobacco use by pregnant women.
Despite multiple attempts, state lawmakers have failed to enact statewide smoking restrictions. Brooks contends encouraging pregnant women not to smoke should be an easy sell in Frankfort.
“While tobacco policy sometimes divides folks in Kentucky, this aspect of tobacco policy surely should unite people,” he says.
In the absence of state legislation, Brooks hopes community leaders will step up with local smoking ordinances or promotional campaigns that target expectant mothers with anti-smoking messages.
Another concern involves access to health care. Brooks says a significant indicator of a child having health insurance is whether his or her parents have health coverage. Some fear that low-income adult Kentuckians could lose coverage provided by the Medicaid expansion under a waiver pursued by Gov. Matt Bevin.
A federal judge recently overturned that waiver plan and sent it back to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for further review. Several days later, the Bevin Administration abruptly ended dental and vision benefits for individuals enrolled in the Medicaid expansion.
The change was not supposed to affect pregnant women, children, and young people who have recently aged out of foster care. But Brooks says he's hearing stories from the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition that suggest some in those populations have been denied dental treatment since July 1.
“We hope that [this] is some kind of an administrative miscue, and I understand how that happens, it’s a complex system. We hope it's not a policy change,” he says. “You can fight over the rest of Medicaid expansion, but surely those three groups deserve maximum protection, maximum access, and maximum service.”
Community and Family
Kentucky families face other challenges as well.
“There's not a state in the nation that has a higher percentage of children who have parents incarcerated,” Brooks says. “There are a variety of aspects to that. For instance, we know that almost two-thirds of the women who are incarcerated are there for the lowest threshold of crimes: drug offenses and property crimes. That translates to shoplifting.”
He says incarceration becomes something of a shared sentence for the mother in jail and the child who may wind up in state care or being taken in by a relative. Kentucky also has the highest percentage of children in the nation who live with a family member other than a parent. He says placing a child with a relative usually is preferable because it helps maintain family bonds and a sense of stability for the child. Kinship care is also less expensive than state-provided out-of-home care, he says.
But the state needs to do more to help family members who provide kinship care, according to Brooks. The 2018 General Assembly did allocate funds to reinstate kinship care support payments that had been suspended for several years due to the budget crisis. Many of those caregivers live on fixed incomes, and they relied on those stipends to help make ends meet when they took in a young relative. But state officials have yet to finalize a plan to start making those payments.
"We've described it as a molasses-like pace," says Brooks. "When you talk to [kinship care providers], they're in desperate need in many situations."
Then there's respite care, which is a benefit provided to foster-care parents who need a break from caregiving. It is not offered to kinship caregivers. In lieu of official respite care, Brooks hopes church and community groups will step up to help support kinship caregivers in their communities.
According to the Kids Count report, the numbers of fourth graders proficient in reading and eighth graders proficient in math have improved. But the number of younger children aged three and four who are not in school has increased.
Another concern for Brooks is state intervention in local school district operations. Earlier this year, Wayne Lewis, Kentucky's interim commissioner of education, recommended a state takeover of the Jefferson County Public Schools after an audit found a number of instructional and disciplinary issues in the district.
Brooks says any takeover discussions should consider local district leadership. For Jefferson County, that's superintendent Marty Pollio, whom Brooks holds in high regard.
Then he says the state should provide community leaders with clear standards that a district must meet to end state management.
“I think the state and local folks need to be able to say, ‘here’s the measurement of success,’ so that everybody knows where the goal line is,” says Brooks.