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Mike Denham: Kids Count report shows state has made substantial progress in several key categories

For more than a quarter-century now, Kentucky Youth Advocates has taken an in-depth look at the well-being of the commonwealth’s children, giving us a valuable year-to-year comparison in such critical areas as health, education and economic security.

Compared to where we were in the early 1990s, these reports – known as Kentucky KIDS COUNT – show we have made major, sustainable progress in some key categories. The teen birth rate, for example, has dropped more than 40 percent during that time, a positive trend that is giving more young women the opportunity to complete their education and to be better prepared for when they do decide to start a family.

The fatality rate for children 19 and younger, meanwhile, has plummeted as well over the long term. In 1990, there were 48 of these tragedies per 100,000 young Kentuckians, but now, that rate is a little above 20.

One area where we have unfortunately taken a step back is poverty. Although we were heading in the right direction in the late 1990s and early 2000s, two recessions across the country since then have reversed that trend. Now, the childhood poverty rate is slightly higher than it was 25 years ago – affecting about one in four children overall.

There is some positive news in that area, however. In the early 1990s, more than 40 percent of children lived in families in which no parent had a year-round full-time job. The rate now is about one-third, which is a step in the right direction but still much higher than anyone would prefer.

Education is another area where slow but steady improvement in some key subjects has been made. In 1992, which was early in the implementation of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, three out of four fourth graders had reading scores below proficient, the threshold we hope all students can achieve. The same rate now is about 60 percent.

The story is similar in eighth grade math. Nine out of 10 were not proficient back then, versus 72 percent now.

Looking at two distinct areas of childhood health, the annual surveys show good news in one and a troubling trend in another. On the positive side, the percentage of children without health insurance coverage has declined from 13 percent in 1990 to about 4 percent now, one of the lowest rates among the states. On other side of the coin, the percent of low-birthweight newborns – defined as less than 5.5 pounds – has actually increased since 1990, from 7.1 percent of births then to 8.6 percent now.

The KIDS COUNT reports are part of a national project, so we can gauge our standing not just over time but with other states as well. This past summer, we learned that we came in 35th in overall child well-being, essentially the same ranking as the last several years. Compared to the mid-1990s, though, we’re up about six spots.

Over the years, the General Assembly has worked to improve these numbers by doing such things as creating a more favorable economic climate, increasing preschool eligibility, requiring booster seats for children too small for traditional seat belts and lengthening the time it takes for new teen drivers to get an unrestricted license.

The House has also worked to increase the minimum wage, which hasn’t risen since 2009; and we have task forces this year researching ways to help vulnerable citizens and to lower the incidence of child abuse. Their reports will lead to legislation that will be debated during the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

As always, I would like to hear any concerns or questions you may have regarding state government. You can reach me by addressing any letter to Room 329E, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Mike.Denham@lrc.ky.gov.

To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.

I would like to note that this newspaper column was prepared at my direction by legislative staff. I provided information I thought was important and approved it as written.


State Rep. Mike Denham is a Democrat from Maysville and has represented House District 70 (Bracken, Fleming and Mason counties) since 2001.

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