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Kids count; so do parents [Editorial]

The Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation is out with its 25th Kids Count data book, measuring the wellbeing of children nationwide across a variety of health, economic, educational and community measures. In some ways, kids are much better off than they were in 1990, when the first book was published, and in some ways they are faring worse. For the good, we can credit a number of wise public policy efforts over the last generation, and for the ill, we can blame macroeconomic and social changes for which we have been unable — or unwilling — to mount a policy response.

The percentage of children without health insurance has dropped by a third since 1990, thanks in no small part to the creation and expansion of children's health insurance programs under Medicaid. Childhood mortality is way down — by the equivalent of about 10,600 deaths last year — because of a range of public health interventions including the expanded use of car seats and bike helmets, graduated driver licensing for teens and tougher drunk driving laws. Teen births are at their lowest level since the government started keeping statistics, thanks to better public health messaging, sex education and increased availability of contraceptives. Federal and state governments began a push toward more and better early childhood education in the early 1990s, and now more than half of 3- and 4-year-old are enrolled in such programs, compared to 38 percent in 1990. And during the era when the educational accountability movement took root, the percentage of students who graduate from high school on time has drastically improved. Even in just the last five years, the rate has improved from 73 percent to 81 percent.

But if the 1990s saw the birth of educational and health interventions that have helped kids, the 2000s dealt them a major economic setback. The effects of the recession are still clearly visible in the percentages of children in poverty, children in households where their parents lack secure employment and households with high housing cost burdens. All of those indicators are substantially worse than they were in the mid-2000s. In fact, the official child poverty rate is worse now than it was in 1990; 3 million more children are living in poverty now than 25 years ago. The percentage of children who lived in areas of concentrated poverty — a statistic associated with a variety of bad outcomes including crime and physical and mental health problems — improved somewhat during the 1990s but has increased drastically since then.

The Casey report makes clear that child welfare is affected both by kids' immediate circumstances — say, whether they have health insurance, attend pre-K or use car seats — and by the broader context in which they live. It matters to a child's social, intellectual and physical development whether his or her parents have a job, live in a poor neighborhood or struggle to pay the bills. Left unsaid by the report is that it has been a much easier political sell during the last 25 years to take action on programs that are targeted at children than it is to enact policies to create better conditions for their families. Expanding Medicaid to more and more children through CHIP programs has proven popular nationwide; expanding Medicaid to more of their parents through the Affordable Care Act has created a political firestorm. But both matter when it comes to raising children who are poised to succeed in life.

The rise in single-parent families since 1990 is a perfect example of our inability to come to grips with the larger forces that are putting millions of children at a disadvantage. In 1990, a quarter of children were being raised in single-parent families, but 35 percent of them are today. On average, those children have access to fewer financial and education advantages and less social support than do those raised by two parents.

There is certainly a moral and cultural dimension to this trend, but changes in social mores aren't the whole story. There's a major economic explanation as well. Rising income inequality and a decline during the last generation of the real earnings of those in the bottom two quintiles of the income scale reflect a world in which the traditional economic bargain or marriage has been upended. As the prospect of decent wages for workers with lower levels of education or technical skills has evaporated, women have grown less and less likely to see the economic benefits of marriage. Our leaders in the faith and government sectors can preach marriage, but that won't change the trend so long as we lack policies to create family-sustaining wages and an economy that benefits not just those at the top of the income scale.

Many of our nation's efforts to improve children's well being during the last generation have been successful. But they won't have the impact we want unless we spare a little of our attention for their parents as well.

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