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RICH HUDDLESTON: Do better for kids

To improve chances of success by Rich Huddleston Special to the Democrat-Gazette | June 28, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

We saw some good news with this week's release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Book: Fewer children in Arkansas live in poverty, and we're making improvements in most of the annual report's measures of child well-being.

But we know that's not good enough for our kids. One in four Arkansas children lives in poverty. Arkansas ranks 41st in overall child well-being, still among the nation's 10 worst states for kids. And the overall poverty numbers mask a huge disparity: 40 percent of black children and 34 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to 17 percent of white kids.

Why does that matter? Because poverty has an enormous--and lasting--negative impact on a child's chances at success. And our state's prosperity is tied to theirs.

The racial disparity in economic well-being was created by policy, and new policies can help us improve it. Centuries of structural barriers prevented families of color from succeeding.

Need an example? Consider discriminatory practices such as "redlining." It outlawed home lending in neighborhoods in which families of color were more likely to live, reducing home ownership while discouraging neighborhood diversity and school integration. Though it was banned 50 years ago, its effects are lasting. Studies show that three out of four redlined neighborhoods continue to struggle economically.

So how can we make sure that all Arkansas children--regardless of race, ethnicity, or family income--have what they need to thrive? There are many good policy initiatives to choose from, but we should look to the ones that are the most practical here in Arkansas.

First, we should follow the lead of 29 other states and create a state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families. We would base it on the successful federal credit, which has had a major impact on reducing child poverty in this country. A state tax credit would build upon that success.

Another step Arkansas could take is adopting a living-wage policy for low-income workers. In the short term, the best way to do this is to pass a measure to increase the minimum wage to $11 an hour. This is likely to be on the November ballot.

We also need to make sure the state has enough funding in its budget for programs that improve children's success, from pre-K and after-school programs to getting the best teachers to the places where they're needed the most. We also need juvenile-justice reform and improvements to our highways and roads that make our economy stronger.

But we won't have that funding if we continue down the road of cutting income taxes for the wealthy. It appears more and more likely that the state will adopt upper-income tax cuts, and possibly corporate tax cuts, to the tune of $200 million or more. This comes on top of almost $300 million in tax cuts adopted in 2013, 2015, and 2017. The state budget already fails to make the investments needed for our kids. More tax cuts for the wealthy will only worsen the state budget crisis. There's no "surplus" to make cuts with if we got it by underfunding children's programs.

One way to increase funding for children's programs is to require all out-of-state online retailers to collect state sales taxes from Arkansas consumers at the time of purchase. We should pair this with a new children's budget, an official state-approved blueprint to guide the state's strategies, and investments for improving child well-being.

The most urgent thing Arkansas needs to do is to make sure that all Arkansans, but especially children, are counted in the coming 2020 Census.

According to one study, 22 percent of Arkansas children under age 5 already live in hard-to-count census tracts. These are mostly children of color, children in immigrant families, low-income children, and those living in rural areas. We cannot develop better public policies to promote child well-being if we don't know where kids live. An accurate population count is also critical to ensuring that Arkansas receives the federal funding it needs for programs that improve child well-being.

Unfortunately, developments at the federal level--including a new citizenship question, the shift to an online survey for families, and the lack of federal leadership on the census--threaten an accurate count of Arkansas children. This makes it imperative that our state and local officials step in and take the necessary steps to ensure that all Arkansas children are counted in 2020.

There's still time, both for the census and for today's children, but only if we start now.


Rich Huddleston is executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Editorial on 06/28/2018

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