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Kentucky shows improvement in Kids Count report, but poverty a ‘persistent challenge’


 
Kids Count 2015 graph
 

By Melissa Patrick
Special to KyForward
 

Kentucky ranks 34th in the nation for overall child well-being, showing the most improvement in health and a significant decrease in teen births in recent years, according to the Kids Count report, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kentucky Youth Advocates.
 

The annual report offers a state-by-state assessment that measures 16 indicators to determine the overall well-being of children. The latest data is for 2013, and is compared with data from five or so years earlier.
 

The report focuses on four major domains: economic security, education, health, and family and community strength.
 

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Kentucky ranked the highest in health, climbing to 24th from 31st in 2013 and 28th in 2014. Its economic security (32nd), education (30th) and family and community strength (38th) rankings remained similar to the past three years.
 

“Health may be a political hot potato for many reasons,” Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a press release. “However, when it comes to kids, the results are clear. Our health ranking stands as a beacon for tangible results for Kentucky kids.”
 

Kentucky’s improved health ranking reflects a 24 percent decrease in child and teen mortality rate, as well as improvements in the percentage of low-birthweight babies (8.7 percent), teens using alcohol or drugs (5 percent), and children without health insurance (6 percent).
 

“With recent increases in health insurance access through Kynect and Medicaid expansion, we expect to see even more children with coverage and able to receive health care,” Susan Zepeda, president and CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, said in the release.
 

A significant area of improvement was found in the family and community domains, where Kentucky showed a 26 percent decrease in teen births between 2008 and 2013.
 

Though still one of the highest in the nation, Kentucky’s teen birth rate decreased to 39 births per 1,000 teen girls ages 15 to 19 in 2013, compared to 53 births per 1,000 teens in 2008. The national average is 26 births per 1,000 teens, which is at a historic low level.
 

“Teenage childbearing can have long-term negative effects for both the mother and newborn,” says the report. “Teens are at higher risk of bearing low-birthweight and pre-term babies. And, their babies are far more likely to be born into families with limited educational and economic resources, which function as barriers to future success.”
 

However, overall in this domain Kentucky got its lowest ranking, showing little change from previous years: 36 percent of Kentucky’s children live in single-parent families; 12 percent of Kentucky’s children live in families where the household head lacks a high-school diploma; and 16 percent of Kentucky’s children live in a high-poverty area, defined as neighborhoods where more than 30 percent of people live in poverty.
 

“Here’s the bottom line from this year’s report: If we as a commonwealth want to get serious about improving the lives of our children, there is one overriding and persistent challenge: poverty.”
— Terry Brooks, Kentucky Youth Advocates

The report also looks at education. It shows that Kentucky had a 31 percent decrease in the number of high school students not graduating on time, from 26 percent to 18 percent, but most of its fourth graders (64 percent) can’t read at a national proficiency level, and most of its eighth graders (70 percent) are not proficient in math. Those numbers haven’t moved much since 2007, when they were at 67 percent and 73 percent respectively.
 

“Children who reach fourth grade without being able to read proficiently are more likely to drop out of high school, reducing their earning potential and chances for success,” says the report, noting that “Students who take advanced math and science courses are more likely to graduate from high school, attend and complete college and earn higher incomes.”
 

Added to this, the percentage of children not attending preschool has increased to 58 percent from 55 percent. “We have to ensure strong early learning is a reality for every youngster,” Tom Shelton, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, said in the release. “That means creating an environment in which children learn in every child care center and in every pre-school across Kentucky.”
 

Kentucky improved to 32nd from 35th last year in the economic well-being domain, but that is little to brag about with one in four of Kentucky’s children found to be living in poverty. Measures in this domain also found that 34 percent of Kentucky’s children live with parents that don’t have secure employment; 27 percent live in households with a high housing cost burden; and 8 percent of Kentucky’s teens are not in school and are not working.
 

“Here’s the bottom line from this year’s report: If we as a commonwealth want to get serious about improving the lives of our children, there is one overriding and persistent challenge: poverty,” Brooks said. “You can’t talk education or health without talking family economics. And we can begin to tackle persistent poverty only when economic well-being policy stops being political and starts being about the common good.”
 

The release suggested broad solutions to improve poverty, including advancing micro-enterprise opportunities, ensuring access to responsible lending and financial services, a more integrated approach to benefits access, expanded child care assistance and family-focused tax reforms.
 

Melissa Patrick writes for Kentucky Health News, an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.


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