SALT LAKE CITY — When national studies look at Utah's economic growth, the news is good. But the 2013 KIDS Count report on child well-being finds the Beehive State slipped from No. 11 to No. 14 in 2013.
More kids live in poverty, more parents lack secure employment and more teens can't find jobs than last year. The percentage of families that struggle with a high housing cost burden increased. So did the percentage of fourth-graders who are not proficient at reading.
The national report, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, examines 16 measures of childhood well-being across four broad categories, relying primarily on 2011 data. Utah ranked No. 11 overall in economic well-being, No. 30 in education and No. 14 in health. Its best showing was in the category of family and community at No. 2, although it slipped on two of the four measures there. A higher percentage of kids live in single-parent families (21 percent), while 3 percent live in high-poverty areas. A decade ago that was 2 percent.
Voices for Utah Children, a nonprofit group that promotes policies and programs that create healthy environments for children and their development, held a media briefing Friday on the report against the backdrop of a photo showing a girl standing by a staircase depicting Utah's downward trajectory. "How low will we go before we make children a policy priority in Utah?" the caption read.
Still, noted Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, "We're 14th, not 50th. We've always done fairly well by our kids. But we need to make children a public policy priority. Children are 33 percent of our population, but they're 100 percent of our future."
The top five states for children were New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey. New Mexico came in dead last. Others at the bottom were Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada and Mississippi.
Nearly 1 in 4, or 16.4 million children live in poverty in America, the report said. In Utah, the number is 138,000 or 16 percent of children. The number of children whose parents lack full-time jobs was nearly 20 percent higher than it was five years ago. The report also found that the number of children in high-poverty neighborhoods climbed in 40 states.
The report also notes a "considerable gap" between the best state and worst state on most measures. One of the most dramatic is in math proficiency: In Massachusetts, 49 percent are not proficient in eighth-grade, but in Mississippi, 81 percent lack proficiency. In Utah, 65 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math. Still, that's an improvement. In 2005, that number was 70 percent.
"Children are our nation's most precious resource, as well as our future leaders, employees, citizens and parents," said Patrick McCarthy, foundation president and CEO, in a written statement with the report. "The early years of their lives are a critical juncture in their development. As our economic recovery continues, we cannot lose sight of doing whatever it takes to help kids, particularly kids in low-income families, reach their full potential — and that includes laying a solid foundation from the moment they are born."
Changing the path
Besides outlining the six areas where Utah improved and eight where it lost ground, the report talks about how to better the lives of the children. Experts on child welfare say the challenge for Utah is sometimes less one of decline than a failure to make some improvements that other states are tackling head-on.
For example, 40 states have expanded Medicaid to assure access to healthcare for more children. Utah is not one of them, said Karen Crompton, director of Voices for Utah Children. Lincoln Nehring, senior health policy analyst for the group, lamented a policy decision that makes children who are legal immigrants wait five years to enroll in Medicaid or CHIP. He noted that some states allow children who qualify for Medicaid to be enrolled for 12 continuous months even if their status changes. Utah doesn't.
Such policies matter to children because if they are healthy, they are ready to learn, they show up to school and their parents are able to go to work instead of staying home to care for them, said Laura Speers, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Some of the state's bad news reflects what's happening across the nation. Utah worsened a bit in terms of kids who are not in school or working, but is "on par with the rest of the country," said Allison Rowland, director of tax and budget issues for Voices for Utah Children, and it ties in directly with the Great Recession. "As the recession hit, people were laid off, people were forced to take lower-level jobs." That meant displaced adults were bumped from their careers and often took jobs below their skill level that would otherwise go to teens and young adults.
It also has meant that kids are not getting those first jobs where they learn certain work skills and start building a work history and good habits. Though many teens and young adults responded to the economic downturn by going back to school, others have not been able to afford it.
Reports that the country finally has the same number of jobs it had before the recession don't usually take into account all the young people entering the work force, Rowland said.
"It's really sort of a tragic thing that young people who come of age in a recession suffer the economic effects throughout the rest of their lives," she said.
Not all bad
Still, good things are happening in the state. Crompton said Goldman Sachs has funded preschool spots so an additional 450 children in Granite School District will be able to attend high-quality preschool. "We think that's a real promising strategy," she said.
Experts think that should help close the achievement gap for disadvantaged children, although they'll have to follow the children for some time to prove it. Other studies have already shown that children in good preschools test at or above peers who didn't have the benefit of such programs.
The entire report, with state-by-state breakouts, is available online. A new KIDS COUNT Data Center launches on Monday, offering different ways to get data on thousands of indicators of child well-being at the state, city, community and even school district level in many cases. Find it for mobile devices at mobile.kidscount.org.
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