Correction: An earlier version of this editorial did not account for the different data sources used by the national Kids Count data center and Kansas Action for Children’s annual Kansas Kids Count reports.
Though the 2013 Kansas Kids Count report is just a snapshot, Kansans and their leaders need to take a long, serious look at its ugly depiction of the growing number of children living in poverty in the state – 23 percent according to 2012 data, up from 19 percent in 2010 and 12 percent a decade ago.
The issue merits more attention from Gov. Sam Brownback. He included decreasing the percentage of children living in poverty in his 2010 campaign’s “Road Map for Kansas” and put a task force to work on the problem a year ago, yet his administration has made it harder to get help from safety-net programs such as child care assistance and food stamps.
Critics were understandably upset by the recent revelation that the governor’s Department for Children and Families has $48 million in reserve funds for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, $9 million of which the administration now wants to divert to a childhood literacy program.
Helping kids read is important, but the administration shouldn’t have been banking cash meant to assist poor Kansans. While the state’s TANF enrollment has sharply declined since 2011, the need has risen.
“The greatest threat to the well-being of children is a lack of economic security. Making it more difficult to access safety-net programs only hurts our chances of reducing poverty,” Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, said in a statement as KAC released the report Tuesday.
Kansas had laudable improvement in other Kids Count report categories, though, showing especially welcome declines in the rates of infant mortality and violent deaths of teens.
KAC highlighted three other areas of needed improvement: the 43.1 slots in Head Start programs for every 100 eligible children, the increase in the number of schoolchildren qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches to 49.5 percent (up nearly 7 percentage points from 2009), and the 50 percent of elementary schools that don’t offer prekindergarten or programs for at-risk 4-year-olds.
The localized data finds Sedgwick County making its own progress in curbing violent deaths among teens (down 3.3 percent in a year) and offering full-day kindergarten (up 2 points to an impressive 89 percent), and better than the state in how many mothers receive prenatal care (86.4 percent, compared with 81.8 statewide) and in access to prekindergarten (61 percent, compared with 49 percent statewide).
But the populous county fares worse than the state in on-time immunizations, low-birth-weight babies, infant mortality, the number of births to mothers without a high school diploma, the overall high school graduation rate and other categories. Using 2011 data, the report puts the number of children living in poverty in Sedgwick County at 21 percent, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Such trend lines can’t be shrugged off or spun. As the downturn continues to pull more Kansas families under the poverty line, the least the state’s leaders can do is not deny them access to the programs meant to help them.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman