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The annual KIDS COUNT® Data Book, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, lays out a road map for major policy opportunities Arkansas should explore so that all children have what they need to thrive and succeed.

The Data Book, the nation's most comprehensive study of the well-being of children, contained some much-needed good news, including an improvement in our state's national ranking in overall child well-being. It also identified areas where targeted efforts could significantly improve the lives of Arkansas' children.

Arkansas rose slightly in the overall national rankings, moving from 41st to 40th among the states. Since 2010, we have been making steady progress in most of the indicators the Data Book tracks in four major areas: education, health care, economic well-being, and family and community.

The rise in our state's overall ranking was due mostly to an improvement in child economic well-being indicators, from 44th to 36th nationally. Since 2010, the number of Arkansas children living in poverty has decreased by 37,000, and our child poverty rate has declined from 28 percent to 22 percent. Arkansas now ranks 43rd in child poverty.

But those numbers mask huge disparities. Children of color, both nationwide and in Arkansas, fare worse across most indicators. Our history of federal and state policies created barriers to economic progress that led to these outcomes, in which 36 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to 17 percent of non-Hispanic white children. As our state's child population becomes more diverse, we must do more to find policies that help close racial and ethnic gaps in child outcomes.

Arkansas can provide tools to help hundreds of thousands of families lift themselves up economically and reduce poverty. For example, the statewide increase in the minimum wage, which took effect in January, will help Arkansas continue the positive trend of reducing child poverty. A targeted tax credit for working families in poverty, such as a state earned income tax credit, is another approach working in other states to reduce poverty rates.

The Data Book points to some major areas where Arkansas is failing children. The state's overall child health ranking fell from 30th to 37th, compared to last year, with more low-birth-weight babies, more uninsured children (the first time since 2010), and more child deaths than the previous year. Analysts and policymakers together must investigate why our children's uninsured rate has increased. We cannot accept going backwards on more than two decades of progress our state has made in covering kids.

The state's lowest rankings are in the family and community category, in which we rank 45th. This is due mostly to higher percentages of children living in single-parent families and the highest teen birth rate in the country. Arkansas has ranked 50th in the teen birth-rate indicator since 2013, directly impacting both the number of single-parent families and the state's high child poverty rate.

While the number of teen births in Arkansas has continued to decrease over the past decade, other states' improvements have surpassed ours. In the 2019 legislative session, state lawmakers proposed several bills aiming to address the teen birth rate. We are hopeful that Arkansas will move forward with targeted policy solutions, including providing evidence-based sex education, in future sessions.

We are fortunate in Arkansas that our child population is growing--by almost 85,000 children since 1990. With this enormous potential comes a huge responsibility for our policymakers to make children our top priority.

Rather than tax cuts for high-income earners and corporations, we need to make critical investments to improve child outcomes and opportunities. Many programs, like early childhood health and development programs, juvenile justice and educational adequacy for the K-12 system don't have enough state funding to help Arkansas excel. Imagine how much progress our state could make with $500 million more invested in kids.

Finally, we must make the 2020 Census a top priority for the state. A key to ensuring that Arkansas children get the resources they need to thrive and succeed is to ensure they are counted in the 2020 Census. Young children are especially at risk of being "undercounted," particularly children of color, children in low-income families, children in immigrant families, and those living in rural areas. At risk are billions of dollars in federal aid--including funding for highways and infrastructure, education, school lunches, Head Start, Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and health care.

Arkansas can and must do better by our kids if we want every child to have the resources and opportunities they need to thrive and succeed. It's critical to their future--and to all of ours, as well.

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

Editorial on 06/17/2019

Print Headline: All kids count

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