On June 24th, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its Kids Count Data Book, which tracks national and state data on key indicators of children’s well being. Over the past 24 years Kid’s Count and its revelations about the economic well being of families, education, health and the communities where children live have been followed by a mushrooming of media attention.
On the busy day of the release, while stories appeared in newspapers and radio nationwide, AECF’s president and CEO, Patrick McCarthy, spent some time with The Imprint explaining the latest data book’s significance.
The Imprint: So tell me what do you find the most interesting and telling piece in this Kid’s Count 2013… Tell me what you’re thinking are the big takeaways
President McCarthy: So I’ll give you three.
Number one is the percentage of children growing up in poverty. That predicts lots of bad outcomes. A lot of other things pivot around that particular issue and we know that since before the recession, roughly three million additional American children are living in poverty, over 16 million overall. That’s about 23 percent of all American kids. That’s a very very high percentage.
Now I just want to give you a little bit of a sense of perspective on this. You know the Kids Count report covers the U.S., and we compare U.S. states. It’s helpful sometimes to compare the U.S. to other countries and as it happens UNICEF recently did their own report card, basically comparing rich countries, and identified 26 different indicators and tried to get a sense of how the different rich countries are doing… Of the 29 countries that they did include, the US ranked 26th overall in child wellbeing and it’s interesting that in the area of material well being, in other words economic situation, again the U.S. ranked 26th. U.S. kids are 26th out of the 29 countries they looked at. So that would be number one.
The second piece that I think is an interesting part of the study is on the education indicators. We’ve seen some improvement in all four of the indicators that we look at. However when you unpack that a bit, you realize that the improvement means that we go from absolutely dismal to just average awful.
For example, the percentage of fourth graders who are reading proficiently by fourth grade: the U.S. has 68 percent of our children not reading proficiently… When you look at African American children it’s more than 80 percent who are not reading proficiently. So yes we’ve improved there somewhat, but we still have a heck of a long way to go.
Same with math performance for eighth graders, 66 percent of kids are not proficient in math by eighth grade. Over 80 percent of Latino children and African American children are not proficient, and of course reading and math predicts all sorts of later adjustments to high school, post secondary, and eventually to the workforce. That would be the second thing that I lift up is that even though we have some improvement in education, we have an awfully long way to go.
And the last thing I’d lift up is that policy makes a difference, and what I mean by that is that in those areas where policy has a direct impact on these indicators, we see improvements consistent with the kind of investments we are trying to make. We see improvements in children with health insurance; we see improvements in a range of issues like child and teen deaths as we’ve seen that car safety has improved; and we see that there’s less teen alcohol and drug abuse.
So those would be the three things that I would lift up as most interesting about this report.
The Imprint: You indicated in your third point that policy matters, and so taking consideration of this heightened rate of poverty and where it puts America in the international perspective, what do you think? Because there’s lots of talk about finance reform within the child welfare system as a way to move towards prevention, but what we’re talking about here are the feeders to the child welfare system that are much much larger. So what do you think what some of the policy approaches are? Or, for you as a foundation, how do these indicators help you think through where you want to focus your attention?
President McCarthy: That’s a terrific question, let me first just make an observation. You referenced child welfare financing. Most people, when they think about child welfare and child protective services, they think about children being beaten in their homes, and actually 78 percent of the children who come through the child welfare system come through because of neglect, essentially because of poverty. So you make a very good point that poverty drives much more than federal financing of child welfare systems. As important as that is that what’s really driving the population of child welfare is poverty.
But having said that, our approach, where we think would make the most sense to invest, is essentially a two-generation strategy. What we mean by that, is number one: you need to invest in the early years of a child’s life. We know that that’s a big payoff period. We know that the brain is developing, social and emotional skills are developing. All of which are very important to how the child will do once they reach kindergarten and first grade. So investing in parent support, and home visiting, and early childhood, and preschool, and kindergarten, and in the first few years of elementary school to ensure that children are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.
These are just smart investments. And by the way, I should point out two things: number one, the investments we are talking about are not going to bring us into higher deficit. Children are not driving the kinds of deficits that we see in the long-term debt. If anything, children today will be bearing the brunt of that debt years down the road. So it seems particularly wrong to me to cut children’s services, and at the same time to load them up with debt that they’re going to have to carry 20, 30, and 40 years from now. So number one: invest in children.
We call it a two-generation strategy, because just investing in children doesn’t get us far enough. You also have to invest in the ability of parents to support their children. So at the Casey foundation we spend a lot of time thinking about and contributing to grantees that help families find jobs; help them build their assets so that they have something to pass on to their children; protect them from financial scams that strip their wealth; provide them with supports for financial literacy; and very importantly provide them supports to learn how to be good parents who are able to do right by their kids.
The Imprint: Does this [The Kids Count Findings] change your [the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s] outlook, or is this more of a continuation of the foundation’s work. Year-to-year you can’t always be shifting based on what you find out from Kids Count, but I’m just curious to the degree that Kids Count itself really drives the foundation’s thinking. How marquee of a program is Kids Count in your thinking?
President McCarthy: It’s certainty the case that the Annie E. Casey foundation’s overall strategy is of investing in young children, investing in their parents, trying to make communities good places to raise kids and being concerned about kids having lifelong connections to families. That’s been our mantra for the last several years and will continue to be.
What’s very important about this particular report though is that it happens to come along at a time when monumental decisions are being made at the state level and at the federal level. This is the point that people are making decisions about where they’re going to invest, what they’re going to cut, what they’re going to support, and what they’re not going to support. And we think it’s absolutely critical that in the midst of this very important debate we’ve got to get this right, that people are thinking about the future and you cannot think about the future if you don’t invest in children. It’s a cliché but it’s true, 100 percent of our future is our children. So it is really an issue of just the right time to have this conversation, because we know that right now in Congress, right now in the state houses, these are the debates that are going on, and we don’t hear enough about the impact on children of some of the decisions that are being contemplated.
The Imprint: Just to think about the future question, a quarter of the children born in America today are of Latino descent. Work that I have done looking writing a kind of journalist’s meta analysis of existing research shows that by third generation many of the protective factors of Latino families are degraded, and Latino rates entering foster care, have gone from underrepresentation to parity in some states like California, to overrepresentation in as many as a dozen states by now. So you see this rising tide, and I’m wondering whether the foundation is thinking about that as they project into the future. How changing demographics and how America is somehow degrading the protective factors of immigrant populations, and what they will mean for the future of children in America. I’m curious if that’s come onto your radar and what you are thinking about that.
President McCarthy: It’s very much on our radar in the sense that we have been concerned about the condition of immigrant and refugee families for many years.
Where I think we need as a foundation, and frankly as a country, to do a whole lot more work is to tackle the very issue you raised. We are now seeing that, as you said, the third and fourth generation of immigrants often start to see some of these social indicators start to deteriorate as families are pulled into work situations, and to housing situations, and communities as there’s a bit of a loss of connection to the core of values of the countries from which folks came.
We really have to recognize that if we’re going to be a successful integrator of all these wonderful new cultures coming to our country, then we have to get out in front of this. So the foundation is working on this, raising a lot of questions about this. I believe the foundation has a long way to go before we have answers that I think we can rely on, but we are investing some time and money trying to figure this out and we hope that the rest of the country will as well.
Daniel Heimpel is the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change and the founder of Fostering Media Connections.