Sobering but not surprising, the news that childhood poverty has worsened in Kansas should draw the attention not only of Gov. Sam Brownback but of all Kansans.
Because the 2013 Kids Count report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation is based mostly on 2011 data, it’s the first to reflect the state under the leadership of the GOP governor, who counted reducing childhood poverty and improving fourth-grade reading among the key goals for his administration and whose childhood-poverty task force met again Monday.
But the Kids Count report more directly reflects the recession’s depth and length, finding Kansas kids losing ground for their economic well-being while seeing enough improvement in categories related to health, education and family to rank a respectable 16th among states overall for the second year in a row. In 2008, for example, childhood poverty in the state was 14 percent. By 2011 it was up to 19 percent. The report also found that 7 percent of Kansas kids are living in areas with a high concentration of poverty, a sizable jump from 2 percent in 2000.
And even some of the progress cited in the Kids Count report should be cause for impatience and action, because it means that many Kansas children still are born underweight (7.1 percent) or without health insurance (6 percent), are missing out on preschool (54 percent), struggling with reading and math, abusing alcohol and drugs as teens (7 percent), and failing to graduate from high school on time (15 percent). And Kansas still has more than the national average of both teen births (39 per 1,000 teens, compared with 34 nationally) and child and teen deaths (33 per 100,000 deaths, compared with 26 nationally). Why? And why do we tolerate such statistics?
“The best way to get out of poverty is a job,” Brownback has said.
True, but because jobs aren’t available for all and the pay isn’t always high enough to provide a living, the safety net must be ample and secure. While Brownback and his legislative allies have made lowering the income-tax burden for Kansans their top priority, the state also has tightened up rules for welfare, child-care assistance and food stamps, and axed tax credits that had helped low-income families. And “if neighborhoods are under-resourced (inadequate schools, no libraries, limited recreation space), children’s development suffers. This, in turn, hampers social mobility and makes it much harder to break the cycle of poverty,” Suzanne Wikle, senior director of policy and research for Kansas Action for Children, wrote Monday on a KAC blog.
It’s a further concern that about 500 fewer children in Kansas, including 74 in Sedgwick County, will receive Head Start services as a result of the federal sequestration cuts. As an article in Monday’s Eagle noted, Head Start bolsters families as it builds a strong foundation for learning.
Public officials, business and faith leaders, social service workers and all of us can and must do better by the youngest Kansans, whose future will determine our state’s.