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Kids Count Data Book highlights areas of continued need as state aims toward recovery from pandemic

Kentucky ranks 37th in the nation in overall child well-being, according to the latest edition of the KIDS COUNT® Data Book, released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Kentucky’s measurable, but still inadequate, improvements were due in part to progress across several areas of economic well-being, child health coverage, teen births, and parental employment. Though Kentucky made progress on a number of indicators of child well-being between 2010 and 2018, rankings show the Commonwealth is not making progress as quickly as other states.

Photo: The Annie E. Casey Foundation

“The annual Data Book uses the latest data on indicators of child well-being, and while this data is not reflective of the current conditions for families amidst the COVID-19 crisis, decision-makers and advocates can utilize the publication as a guidepost as we work to safely and thoughtfully move forward from the immense impacts of the pandemic,” said Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “Understanding the state of kids prior to the crisis should only fuel our work to improve the outcomes for all Kentucky kids in the months and years to come.”

The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book uses 16 indicators to rank each state across four domains — health, education, economic well-being and family and community — as an assessment of child well-being. Kentucky ranks:

• 41st in economic well-being. Despite Kentucky’s improvement in economic well-being since 2010, other states are improving at a faster pace. More than one in five children lived in poverty in 2018. Also, in 2018, 32 percent of children lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment.

• 27th in education. The good news is that nine in 10 Kentucky high school students graduated on time in 2018—ranking the commonwealth third in the nation on this indicator. The bad news is Kentucky continues to struggle when it comes to the percent of fourth-grade students scoring less than proficient in reading (65 percent) and of eighth-grade students scoring less than proficient in math (71 percent).

• 42nd in health. Kids’ health coverage remains a bright spot for Kentucky with 96 percent of children covered, but there are still approximately 40,000 uninsured. The Data Book’s new indicator – percent of children and teens (age 10-17) who are overweight or obese – shows an area in which the commonwealth must also improve, with 38 percent of kids falling into that category and the commonwealth ranking 49th among states.

• 41st in the family and community domain. Between 2010 and 2018, the teen birth rate in Kentucky fell by 41 percent to 27 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19. The percent of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma also decreased during that time, down to 10 percent.

“While this data is important, it doesn’t tell the whole story about how all Kentucky kids are doing. The discomforting truth is that the zip code in which our children live, the amount of money their family earns, and the color of their skin are pervasive and powerful influences on their childhood and the future they are able to embrace. Systemic inequities continue to limit opportunities to thrive for children of color, and it is our obligation to not only track and understand those, but also to transform systems so every Kentucky kid can grow up healthy, safe, and hopeful for the future,” said Brooks.

Supplemental data to the Data Book release shows disparate outcomes for Kentucky children by race, place, and income:

Black and Hispanic communities have faced historical and ongoing discrimination in housing, employment, and financial services, which has compounded across generations and resulted in many families having less wealth and assets and being more racially and economically segregated. In Kentucky, children who are Black or Hispanic are more likely to live in poverty (42 and 33 percent, respectively, in 2018) than children who are non-Hispanic White (at 20 percent).

The socioeconomic characteristics of a place influence the rate of low-weight births, and certain environmental exposures, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, lead, and pesticides – can increase risk. These are likely contributing factors for a cluster of high rates of low-weight births in Eastern Kentucky.

Academic achievement gaps are the result of disparate opportunities for many low-income children. A child who struggles to read proficiently as a fourth-grader is less likely to graduate on time and more likely to struggle economically as an adult. In Kentucky, fourth graders eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch (due to low household income) are half as likely as their higher-income peers to attain reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“While this data was collected prior to the pandemic, it’s clear that children and families in historically disadvantaged and oppressed communities are hit the hardest by the current crisis,” said Brooks. “Federal and state policymakers must prioritize policies and programs that expand opportunity for Kentucky’s growing child population, address disparities facing Kentucky’s children of color, and launch families into a more prosperous future as they re-enter the workforce.”


• Kentucky kids and their families need a strong state budget as part of COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts. Investments in critical programs and services, such as safety net programs (Medicaid, KCHIP, SNAP, and KTAP) and child abuse and neglect prevention programs, can be the bridge to a brighter future—both by helping families meet their basic needs in the short-term and by setting kids up for long-term success.

• As Kentucky reopens and parents prepare to go back to a new normal routine, many are now faced with identifying safe, affordable child care options. Continued federal investment in the infrastructure of the child care sector would allow kids to have access to quality early learning opportunities, parents to have safer care options as they go to work, and the economy to begin to rebuild.

• The impacts of current and future investments and policy change on every Kentucky family, especially those with children of color, will be fully realized when all state agencies agree to systematically collect, analyze, and report data disaggregated by race and ethnicity for those they serve.

Kentucky Youth Advocates

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