A new report puts Vermont fourth in the nation in overall child well-being.

The annual KIDS COUNT report, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, uses 16 indicators across four categories — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community context — to produce its assessment of child well-being in all 50 states.

Vermont made its most notable progress in economic well-being. According to the report, 11,000 children were living in households with incomes below the official poverty line — a nearly 50% decrease from 2010. The 2019 rate is the second-lowest in the nation after New Hampshire.

The area of health was another bright spot, with only 2% of children lacking health insurance in 2019. The state also had the lowest rates of low-birth-weight babies at 6.6%. Obesity among youth ages 10-17 was 29%, coming in below the national average of 31%.

But despite those gains, the report found that economic vulnerability is still a concern, revealing that a quarter of Vermont children still live in households where no parent had secure full-time employment.

In other areas, the report showed varying degrees of progress. Education, in particular, was a mixed bag. One positive was the state’s jump from 20th to third in the nation for the number of 3 and 4-year-olds attending pre-school. In 2017-19, 64% were enrolled, up from 48% in 2009-11.

Less encouraging was the finding that more standardized test scores fell below the “proficiency” threshold in 2019, with 63% of fourth-grade reading scores and 62% of eighth-grade math scores falling to the “basic” level or below.

The report also showed an increase in the percentage of high school students who did not graduate in four years, which rose from 13% in 2011 to 16% in 2019.

While the data collected in the report predates the coronavirus pandemic, it does also include U.S. Census data collected over the past year.

The Census Bureau’s Pulse Household Survey data collected via email surveys between April and December of 2020 showed that, while Vermont families struggled through the pandemic, they fared better than the nation as a whole.

According to the data, 12% of Vermont households overall had “little or no confidence in their ability to pay their next rent or mortgage on time” compared to 22% nationwide. By March of this year, that number had dropped to 8% in Vermont and 18% nationally.

However, Vermont pulse survey data indicates notable racial disparities, with 32% of Asian households, 23% of Black or African American households, and 19% Hispanic or Latino households reporting difficulty making housing payments. By comparison, only 11% of White households reported similar difficulties.

Looking at food access, 8% of Vermont households reported that they “sometimes or often” did not have enough food to eat. However, 14% of both Black or African American households and Hispanic or Latino households reported food insecurity over the same period.

Sarah Teel, research director for Voices for Vermont’s Children, characterized the disparities as “stark.”

“They, I think, are notable because Vermont actually has gone to great lengths to support housing assistance and food access, and, yet, people are experiencing things unevenly.”

Voices is an independent youth advocacy group, which partners with the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the KIDS COUNT report.

Mental health issues were also slightly more pronounced among BIPOC Vermonters. While the data showed that overall 20% of adults living in households with children “felt down, depressed or hopeless” in March 2021, Black or African American respondents reported feeling depressed at a rate of 23%, and Latino or Hispanic respondents at a rate of 31%.

Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP stated it wasn’t surprising Black respondents felt more depressed during the pandemic.

“Black and brown children spent the last year watching and hearing about people who look like them being murdered,” Schultz wrote in an email. “Many youth took to the streets in protest, they fought to raise Black Lives Matter flags only to see mostly extreme push-back and disdain for this action. They witnessed a lot of performative action and there was a lack of real systemic change. Kids watch this and absorb this trauma, too, and are not equipped to mentally process this.”

Teel said the report is sending a message to policymakers to think beyond recovery, arguing that simply returning to the pre-COVID status quo will not “create resilient systems” or “give people the opportunity to thrive equally.”

“Given the way a crisis has such disparate impacts, it’s really clear that we need to correct the systemic barriers and the systemic injustices going forward,” she said.

By way of solutions, Teel supported the report’s recommendation of making the American Rescue Plan’s expansion of the federal child tax credit permanent. Beginning next month, families will receive up to $300 per month per child for the rest of this year.

Moreover, the foundation urged states to prioritize recovery efforts within BIPOC communities; expand income supports for working families, such as expanding state tax credits and extending unemployment insurance eligibility to contract workers; strengthen public schools; and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act if they haven’t already done so.

Teel noted that the federal relief efforts enacted this year have the potential to cut child poverty rates in the United States in half.

She said the question then becomes, “What about next year?”

“The way we measure poverty in this country is really just a measure of cash resources,” she said. “So if we really want to change that indicator, then providing more cash resources will immediately do that.”

And for Teel, a key part of the process of crafting effective policy is to engage the communities impacted by it most.

“I think we would like to see avenues for greater participation and input into policies, and for impacted communities to be the ones really offering the solutions that they know will work,” she said. “The rest of it, actually, will follow from there.”

Looking ahead, Schultz said the Rutland Area NAACP is working to create a youth council that she hopes will “mitigate” the fear and isolation BIPOC youth are experiencing. In addition, she said the they will work to partner with others to create more events that support local youth.

But she said the work is not solely the responsibility of her organization alone.

“The entire community is obligated to ensure the safety and well-being of all children,” she said.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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