• Counting kids
    July 24,2014

    Vermonters may take satisfaction in the new rankings of children’s well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In fact, the states of the Northeast on the whole finished high in most of the foundation’s rankings.

    In categories covering education, health, economic well-being and family and community, Vermont moved up to No. 2 from its ranking last year as No. 3. The top five states were Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota. (New Hampshire fell from No. 1 to No. 4 this year.) The bottom five were Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and Mississippi.

    An examination of the foundation’s annual report suggests that self-congratulation by Vermonters may be premature. Poverty among children remains high across the nation, and it remains increasingly concentrated. And most indicators of children’s well-being remain linked with the fact of poverty. Vermont may rank higher than most states, but the problems faced in the low-ranked states are not unknown in Vermont and continue to present challenges to parents, educators and anyone concerned about children.

    The foundation presents some startling statistics. In 2012 the child poverty rate was 23 percent. This figure has fluctuated over the years: From 1990 to 2000 the child poverty rate dropped from 21 percent to 16 percent. By 2010, in the midst of the Great Recession, it had risen to 22 percent.

    A different measure of poverty takes into account benefits received from state and federal programs. In 2009 the rate that counted those benefits was 17 percent, showing that government programs have a significant impact in alleviating the most dire effects of poverty.

    The report draws a direct link between poverty and single-parent households, which tend to be poorer and less stable and with parents who have had less education. One of the startling figures in the report showed that 41 percent of babies in 2012 were born to unmarried mothers. In 2013 64 percent of mothers with children under 6 years old were in the labor force, which was up from 58 percent in 1990. That increase was almost entirely due to the increased participation in the labor force by single mothers. The percentage rose from 49 percent in 1994 to 60 percent in 2010.

    The prevalence of single-parent households with a working parent points to the importance of preschool education, and one of the successes cited in the report was the growing availability of preschool programs. The percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds attending preschool rose from 38 percent in 1990 to 51 in 2012.

    It is perhaps not surprising that many of the poorest states are ones whose economies historically have been based on racial exploitation. The racial disparities in the poverty figures and in figures relating to children’s well-being remain stark. How to make economic progress in ways that extend the benefits across all races remains a major challenge for the nation.

    Vermont is not immune to the challenges faced by poorer states. Test scores have shown that there is a strong link between poverty and educational performance, and the problems associated with poverty remain intractable in Vermont as elsewhere. Vermont has never had a racial underclass as other states have had, but helping lift children out of poverty is the same challenge in Vermont as elsewhere.

    One of the major strides the state has made is to equalize education funding among poor and rich towns. One of the great stains on the nation is the disparity in education funding between rich and poor neighborhoods. Rich neighborhoods tend to get more. If those neighborhoods are predominantly white, the unfair funding patterns perpetuate the racial disparities that have always plagued the nation. Even when racial disparities are not a factor, unequal funding tends to perpetuate the ill effects of poverty.

    The foundation’s report does not address the health problems associated with obesity, except to acknowledge that they are serious, affecting many children. Early indications show that obesity among young children is declining, which is a positive trend. Vermont, like other states, faces a major challenge in combating the pervasive role of junk food and beverages in sickening our children.

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