A new Kentucky KIDS COUNT roundup of county-by-county data on child well-being shows Jefferson County improving in three out of four measures of economic security and registering gains in several other areas, such as youth incarceration, smoking during pregnancy, kids with health insurance and high school students graduating on time.
But areas of concern remain in the latest report released Tuesday, including a spike in the rates of children living outside their homes due to abuse or neglect — both in Jefferson County and statewide — and there are many children still living in poverty.
The book, which includes the latest data on 17 measures of child well-being, is a project of Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville.
“We have made headway in the percent of children living in poverty with improved rates in 93 out of 120 counties. And yet, nearly one in four Kentucky kids still lives in poverty,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, in the summary. “To put that in perspective, living in poverty equates to an annual income of $24,339 or less for a family of four.”
The book, which has been published for nearly three decades, is intended to be a catalyst for change to create better lives for children around the state.
“Our aspiration is that data influences policy more than politics,” Brooks said. “As long as folks want policy to be based on objective research, rather than partisan rhetoric, this kind of data is always important.”
The report also serves as a red flag for problems like thousands of children living in out-of-home care, such as foster homes or institutional settings, due to abuse or neglect. That rate per 1,000 children increased to 30.2 in 2015-2017 in Jefferson County from 25.0 in 2011-2013. Statewide, the rate reached 43.7 percent in 2015-2017, compared with 35.3 percent in 2011-2013.
“All children need safe homes and loving families to thrive,” the databook notes. “When children cannot remain in their parents’ care – due to parental substance abuse or incarceration, the military deployment or death of a parent, or experiencing child maltreatment – grandparents and other relatives often step up to raise them. This has become even more true as the addiction crisis permeates Kentucky.”
However, Brooks is hopeful that recently passed child welfare reform legislation in the state and nationally will help make a difference.
“Together, House Bill 1 from Frankfort and Family First from Washington really talks about let’s try when we face an issue of crisis and problems with a kid, are there opportunities to hold that family together? Are there alternative options, such as kinship care, that can be utilized?”
In addition to that, he said, imaginative cross-sector collaborations are needed to address related problems, such as a high number of incarcerated parents, the opioid epidemic and poverty.
However, the report shows that children are doing somewhat better in terms of economic security in Jefferson County and statewide. The percentage of Jefferson County children living in poverty (below 100 percent of the federal poverty level) improved to 20.9 percent in 2016 from 26.6 percent in 2011. Kentucky also improved on that measure, up to 24.4 percent from 27.2 percent.
Jefferson County children living in deep poverty (below 50 percent of the federal poverty level) improved slightly to 11 percent in 2012-2016 from 12 percent in 2007-2011. But another measure, children living in low-income families (defined as 200 percent of the federal poverty level) remained the same in both Jefferson County (45 percent) and statewide (48 percent).
Local children living in food insecure households, which at times lack access to enough food for a healthy life and have limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods, improved to 16.8 percent in 2016 from 18 percent in 2011, according to the report. The state also improved on that measure, up to 19.2 percent in 2016 from 22.4 percent in 2011.
The economic security improvements are “great news, but by the same token, it still says that one in four kids in Kentucky live in poverty and that is not a fact that anybody can celebrate,” Brooks said.
Although people may not think urban and rural Kentucky have much in common, the report helps to show that “the problems, the opportunities and solutions for kids in Kentucky actually have a lot more in common than they do different,” Brooks said.
Some things that “would help a low-income family in the core of Louisville are the same things that would help a low-income family in the most rural part of the state,” he added. “That might be a state-earned income tax credit. It might be curbs on predatory payday lending. Those kind of solutions transcend ZIP code.”
Brooks also noted that despite differences between political parties, state leaders have been able to come together in the past to enact meaningful change. He credits juvenile justice reforms, approved by the legislature in 2014, with helping to improve the percentage of youth incarcerated in the juvenile justice system.
Today, “we know that locking a kid up is not the way to address truancy,” he said.
In Jefferson County, the rate of youths incarcerated in the juvenile justice system has gone to 30.5 in 2015-2017 from 77.0 in 2010-2012. Likewise, the state’s rate has declined to 25.6 in 2015-2017 from 51.9 in 2010-2012.
Another area of improvement: children with health insurance. Jefferson County’s rate increased to 97.5 percent in 2016, and the state is doing similarly well.
“After decades of progress, Kentucky’s rate of insured children has reached an all-time high at 96.7 percent,” according to a Kentucky Youth Advocates. “All 120 counties have improved rates in children having health coverage.”