Positive Data Trends and Remaining Challenges for Kentucky’s Children

By John Gregory | 7/04/17 8:00 PM

How would the commonwealth’s college basketball fans feel if their favorite team was ranked 34th in the nation instead of in the top 10?

They wouldn’t stand for it, says Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks. So why, he asks, do they accept the fact that the state ranks 34th nationally in the overall well-being of its youngest citizens?

Brooks appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss Kentucky’s ranking in the new Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He also outlined several steps he thinks the state can take to bring about a revolution in child welfare.

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A ‘Mixed Bag’ of Metrics
The data book groups a number of different metrics into four broad categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community (click here for a link to the report). The numbers for Kentucky show slight improvements in many areas, and little change or declines in other areas.

“Most states show across-the-board improvement or across-the-board decline,” Brooks says. “When you look at our report card, it’s such a mixed bag.”

In addition to the overall ranking of 34th, Kids Count has good rankings for Kentucky in education (24th) and health (22nd). In education, there are small gains in math and reading proficiency, but also a 3 percent increase since 2009 in the number of young children not in school. Every health category has improved in recent years, including fewer low-birthweight babies as well as fewer teens abusing drugs and alcohol. Kentucky continues to be slightly better than the national average in the percentage of children without health insurance.

The commonwealth ranks much lower in the other metrics: 38th for family and community, and 39th for economic factors. More than a quarter of Kentucky children live in poverty and more than a third of kids have parents who lack secure employment. The percentage of children living in single-parent families has grown worse since 2010, now topping out at 36 percent as of 2015.

Brooks says improving the economic well-being of families and children should be the top priority for legislators when they convene for the 2018 General Assembly session in January. He says economic factors have a direct impact on every other area of a child’s life, from their education to their health to the safety of their communities.

Help for Struggling Parents and Families
Kentucky Youth Advocates is promoting three ideas to help improve the lives of low-income families in the commonwealth. The first is a state earned income tax credit (EITC) that would give low-income working families a break on their taxes based on their earnings and the number of children in the home. Brooks says that would benefit families, their communities, and the commonwealth.

“We know that when that family gets to keep that money, they are not putting it in their off-shore account. They’re spending it in the local economy,” Brooks says. “It stimulates the local economy, which contributes to the state budget.”

Brooks says the federal EITC has enjoyed bipartisan support since it was introduced in the 1970s, and it has been an effective tool for fighting poverty. He says more than 30 states already offer some from of EITC to their residents. Brooks hopes the forthcoming special legislative session on tax reform will include discussion about an EITC for Kentucky.

The second economic tool Brooks suggests is to create micro-lending opportunities. That would help low income individuals with entrepreneurial ideas secure the capital they need to launch a business. Brooks says more than 20 states have such micro-lending programs. He says research indicates that Kentucky is a “poster candidate” for microenterprise.

“We are very comfortable with seed loans to Toyota or to UPS,” Brooks says.” So maybe we should become comfortable with small, reasonable, accountable startup loans [to low-income entrepreneurs].”

Finally, Brooks has an idea for a new way to deploy unemployment compensation funds. Instead of using those dollars to support people while they look for a job, he suggests funneling a portion of that money to non-profit community groups in need of help so they can hire unemployed people. Brooks says this “subsidized employment” gives those organizations the manpower they need, and an unemployed person an actual job.

“Who would not think that using unemployment dollars to get folks in the job market to have them doing honorable work, to help honorable community institutions, is not better than paying you not to work?” asks Brooks.

He adds that more than 30 states already offer some form of subsidized employment.

Health Issues
Why have health factors improved for Kentucky children even while economic factors remained stagnant? Brooks attributes that to more adults obtaining insurance coverage through the state’s Medicaid expansion and more children getting covered under the Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program (KCHIP), which provides free or low-cost health insurance for children under age 19 who otherwise wouldn’t have coverage.

But both of those items are at risk, says Brooks. Federal health care legislation being debated by Congress could radically change how Medicaid works and who it covers. In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin has proposed an overhaul to the state’s Medicaid program that could also lead to significant changes. Brooks says he fears those steps could lead to fewer adults having health insurance, which will lead to fewer children being covered as well. He says that’s because the biggest factor determining whether a child has health coverage is if their parent has it.

“There’s lots of discussions in Frankfort as to what the next chapter of Medicaid coverage is going to look like in Kentucky,” says Brooks. “We have to make sure that folks in the governor’s office, folks in the Senate, and folks in the House know that when they talk about parent coverage, they’re really talking about kid coverage.”

As for CHIP, federal funding for that program comes up for renewal this fall, and Brooks fears it could fall victim to debates over replacing the Affordable Care Act. CHIP was created in the mid-1990s, according to Brooks, and has nothing to do with the ACA. He hopes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation will support a “robust” reauthorization of CHIP at the federal level so that funding for KCHIP can remain strong.

Foster and Kinship Care
With more than 8,000 Kentucky children in state care and thousands more at risk of abuse and neglect, Brooks says it’s time for a sweeping transformation of child welfare in the commonwealth.

“They deserve nothing less than a fundamental revolution to build their future,” says Brooks.

That’s why KYA is developing a broad policy agenda that will include ideas to address economic and health care issues, as well as help Kentuckians who are raising the children of family members. Brooks says more than 70,000 children live in so-called kinship care. He says these situations usually arise out of some kind of family crisis, such as when a parent faces a health problem, incarceration, or addiction.

Instead of those children going into the state’s foster care system, they wind up staying with relatives. Even though those family members essentially become foster parents, Brooks says they aren’t given the same supports the state gives certified foster families: They aren’t paid the stipend that foster parents receive, nor are they eligible for respite care, according to Brooks.

The state did offer small payments to adults providing kinship care, but former Gov. Steve Beshear ended that benefit because of state budget concerns during the recession. Brooks hopes the Bevin administration and lawmakers will restore that stipend, but the governor has resisted that idea, saying family members have a responsibility to take in young relatives in need.

“With all due respect to governor, that’s a great line, but it’s not reality,” says Brooks.

He contends many kinship caregivers have their own financial concerns even before they take on the economic burdens of raising one or more children. He also argues that helping kinship families is a more cost-effective solution than placing a child in state care.

“We know that there are a number of things that we can do to help folks in kinship care,” says Brooks. “It’s smart investments, it saves state money… and it’s better outcomes for kids.”