The Annie E. Casey Foundation has just released its 2015 KIDS Count Data Book, an annual report on how children are doing nationally and in individual states.
Among the key findings: despite some positive economic changes, childhood poverty stubbornly persists.
“About 1.7 million more children live in low-income working families today than during the Great Recession,” the foundation explains on its website. “In 2013, one in four children, 18.7 million, lived in a low-income working family in the United States. Nearly a third of children are living in families where no parent has full-time employment. And even when parents are working full time, wages and benefits are often not sufficient to adequately support a family.”
The Data Book “showed some signs of slight improvement, including high school graduation rates at an all-time high and a falling percentage of uninsured children. But the bright spots weren’t enough to offset a picture that many children have been left behind amid the nation’s economic recovery,” according to a news story from the Associated Press.
KIDS COUNT Policy Implications
“Let’s start with the good news. With 2.95 million jobs created, 2014 was the best year of job growth in the United States since 1999,” Patrick T. McCarthy, the Casey Foundation’s president and CEO writes in the Data Book’s opening section.
“But there are some worrisome economic indicators for families in the bottom half of the income scale, particularly African Americans and Latinos. Although new job growth has occurred at all wage levels, it has been disproportionate in low-wage sectors, such as retail and food services, and in some of the lower-wage positions within health care and home care.”
These and other “negative economic trends directly affect children. In 2013, nearly a third of children (31 percent) were living in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. The child poverty rate has remained stubbornly high. At 22 percent in 2013, it was still several percentage points higher than before the recession.”
McCarthy says that while 2014 childhood poverty figures are expected to show improvements, millions of families still face “unacceptably high levels of economic hardship, given what we know about family income, child development, and future opportunity.”
How can the country tackle poverty and improve children’s outcomes? The Casey Foundation calls for two-generation solutions.
“The best way to facilitate optimal outcomes for today’s children is to address their needs, while providing tools and assistance to their parents. Last fall, the Foundation released a report, Creating Opportunity for Families: A Two-Generation Approach, which outlined three critical strategies for strengthening whole families:”
• “Provide parents with multiple pathways to get family-supporting jobs and achieve financial stability.”
• “Ensure access to high-quality early childhood education and enriching elementary school experiences,” and
• “Equip parents to better support their children socially and emotionally and to advocate for their kids’ education.”
McCarthy however acknowledges that there are “serious obstacles to making progress on the first strategy because of a dearth of family-supporting jobs.”
On a brighter note, he adds, “We don’t need to accept the current proliferation of low-quality jobs as inevitable. States, localities and businesses are increasingly experimenting with innovative strategies to turn low-quality into high-quality jobs.”
Specifically, McCarthy praises the efforts of CostCo and other companies that pay higher wages, provide benefits, and give workers more control over their schedules. “Combined with smart operational choices, these businesses and others have managed to create loyal, seasoned workforces, while producing high levels of customer satisfaction and remaining profitable for shareholders.”
In addition, some states and cities have passed sick leave laws that provide more days off for low-wage workers. States have also been “gradually modernizing the eligibility provisions of their Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs to expand access to those who were traditionally excluded, such as part-time and low-wage workers, as well as those who leave a job for compelling family reasons.”
Massachusetts’ KIDS COUNT Data
The Casey Foundation ranks Massachusetts an impressive third of all 50 states in overall child well-being. Minnesota is in first place and New Hampshire is in second. (Casey’s Massachusetts data sheet is online here.)
At the bottom of this list are Louisiana in 48th place, New Mexico in 49th, and Mississippi in 50th.
Despite Massachusetts’ strong showing, the Data Book’s findings on this state are, nonetheless, mixed according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget), which explains, “The Data Book contains significant good news, particularly on education. In addition to our children leading the nation in reading and math proficiency, we are making real progress on reducing the number of students dropping out. Now 14 percent of our students don’t graduate on time – that’s too many, but it’s down from 18 percent in 2008.”
Massachusetts, however, remains “a long way from providing each of our children with the support they need to succeed. For example, we lead the nation in the share of our children who are proficient in reading by fourth grade. But still more than half of our students — 53 percent — are not reading proficiently by fourth grade.”
In addition, “one in six children live in poverty and an increasing number of our children are growing up in very high poverty neighborhoods.” And “on measures of family economic well-being we rank 17th.” That’s why “Raising the incomes of low and middle income families remains an important challenge for our Commonwealth.”
MassBudget adds: “The recent increase in the minimum wage, and the scheduled increases over the next two years should help – as will the likely to be enacted increase in the earned income tax credit… Working parents need affordable child care, a transportation system that lets them get to work, and often education and job training to improve their skills. There is strong evidence that when the income of low-wage families increases, their children are helped not just in the short term, but also in the long term: they do better in school and earn more as adults.”
Looking Forward to a Brighter Future
“Creating more good jobs is key to widening the pathways out of poverty, laying the foundation for the next generation and producing a healthy and productive national economy for the decades ahead,” McCarthy (Casey’s CEO) writes in the Data Book. “We must find the political will to take on these challenges.”
The Data Book concludes: “If we want to ensure that the next generation is prepared to effectively compete in a global economy that is increasingly technology driven and dependent on a well-educated workforce, then we must act. With the right investments, we can provide all families and children with the opportunity to reach their full potential and, in the process, strengthen both our economy and our nation.”