The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book is out, and it brings some positive news for Kentucky’s children.
Of the 16 cornerstone indicators investigated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kentucky has shown improvements in 11 sectors. Four sectors have remained the same, and only one area, young children not in school, has gotten worse.
“We’re improving,” says Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks. “We need to applaud and give ourselves credit as a commonwealth, but we can’t forget that we still lag behind the nation on many of those points.”
Brooks appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the new data and several of his organization’s priorities for the 2020 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
Kids in Kinship Care
The report examines data in four general categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Overall Kentucky ranks 34th in the nation, which is itself a point of concern for Brooks.
“What other sector would we be content to be in the bottom half of the nation?” asks Brooks.
Each of the four economic indicators has improved for Kentucky children since 2017, but Brooks says the overall numbers remain troubling. For example, 230,000 of the state’s children still live in poverty, and 316,000 kids live in homes where neither parent has secure, full-time employment.
“That is not a case where mom and dad are just sitting around the porch,” he says. “They have two or three part-time jobs, all minimum wage, none with benefits.”
The family and community category is the state’s worst: Kentucky places 43rd in the nation in that indicator. The percentages of children in single-parent families and those living in high-poverty areas remain unchanged from the last report.
Addiction and incarceration among parents contributes to those numbers, says Brooks. Those factors have also caused the commonwealth to lead the nation in the number of children who live with a grandparent or other relatives. Now, more than 100,000 of the state’s youth live in so-called kinship care.
“We view that as unfortunate that it’s happening because it never emanates from less than a crisis,” Brooks says, “but we see it as a positive because if you can’t be with mom and dad, being with that grandma is a positive thing.”
Brooks says kinship care is generally better for the child than state care, which is more expensive for taxpayers. But he says legislators can do more to help kinship caregivers with their responsibilities. Since many family members take on caregiving in last-minute or emergency situations, Brooks says they’re often not prepared with basic supplies like diapers or extra beds. In the 2020 legislative session, he plans to ask lawmakers for money to help caregivers cover these initial costs as well as funds to pay for respite care so those family members can take much-needed breaks from their duties.
Keeping Kids Out of Jail
Kentucky is also a national leader in the number of children with incarcerated parents. To address that situation, Brooks advocates for criminal justice reforms that can reduce the number of mothers who are incarcerated for low-level offenses. He also hopes lawmakers will consider ways to employ technology such as electronic ankle monitors that would allow a parent to stay home with their children.
Brooks says he doesn’t expect much progress in the 2020 session on larger criminal justice issues like bail reform, but he hopes the General Assembly will pursue several juvenile justice options. He says the commonwealth has no age of accountability, which means that children as young as seven or eight years old can be arrested and jailed. Brooks contends the wiser course of action would be to help the child get on the right track with social supports, and work to help the family to improve their home environment.
He also wants lawmakers to address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.
“It’s a sad trifecta that if I am an African-American male with an intellectual or emotional disability, the likelihood that I’m locked up versus [having] an ankle bracelet in home incarceration is very significant,” he says.
As an example of the issue, Brooks says 46 youth were in detention in Jefferson County at the end of September 2019. Of that group, he says only one of them was white. He says the first step to addressing disparities based on race, gender, and intellectual ability would be a systematic effort to collect data on which youth get detained across the commonwealth.
“I for one do not believe that anyone wants a system that looks at the color of a kid’s skin and makes a determination [about incarceration],” says Brooks. “We lack the legitimate data to be able to talk about that.”
Opportunities for Better Health
Kentucky’s best results in the data book are among the health indicators, where the state ranks 25th in the nation. Since 2017, the commonwealth has experienced a reduction in the percentage of low birth-weight babies, child and teen deaths, and children without health insurance.
“We’re down to only about 4 percent of kids in Kentucky who are not covered – that’s an amazing change,” he says. “So we’ve got to dig a little deeper – what do we do about that last 4 percent?”
Brooks says the biggest factor in children having health insurance is whether their parents have coverage. That’s why he carefully watches policy changes that could have a detrimental impact on insurance coverage for adults.
One health factor that did not change since the last report is the rate of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs. Brooks says there are many opportunities for the state to further reduce use of tobacco and vaping products among children. For example, he wants lawmakers to tax e-cigarettes the same as traditional cigarettes.
“We know that e-cigs are targeted for kids,” he says. “You don’t market flavors named cotton candy and grape slush to [adults].”
Early Childhood Education
Kentucky also showed some gains in two of the education indicators. But even there, the results are mixed, says Brooks.
“There’s slight improvement in reading and math proficiency. Reading gets measured for fourth graders; math, eighth graders,” he says. “Conversely, we still have two out of three fourth graders who don’t meet the minimal proficiency standard. We have even a higher percentage, almost three out of four eighth graders, who can’t decipher at a minimally competent level.”
Another troubling statistic is that the percentage of 3 and 4 year-olds not in preschool increased from 57 percent to 59 percent. Brooks says that’s bad news for children and the state’s economy: Without better early education, children are more likely to underperform as they progress through school and when they enter the workforce as adults.
“We have to guarantee early childhood options to parents that are accessible, affordable, and of high quality,” says Brooks. “So we’ve got to continue as a commonwealth to be creative, to think about that return on investment with early childhood for the kid, for the family, and for that workforce.”
Many policy changes and funding options may hinge on who wins this year’s governor’s race. Whether that’s incumbent Republican Matt Bevin or Democratic challenger Andy Beshear, Brooks says he hopes the next governor will commit to continuing the progress that’s already been made.
“There’s common sense, common ground, and common good that whoever is governor needs to champion for Kentucky’s kids,” says Brooks.
Click here to read the full 2019 KIDS COUNT report.