Increased Child Poverty Rate Disproportionately Impacts the Nation’s Youngest Learners

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is out with its 25th KIDS COUNT Data Book, which has been providing the public with an annual glimpse into the well being of American children for the past quarter-century.

As big anniversaries do, this one provides a natural opening to look at how we have fared. Trends were both positive and troubling during a time of major demographic shifts: The nation’s population of children climbed from 64 million to 74 million. The percentage of white children declined, Latinos doubled and mothers of young kids entered the labor market in record numbers.

On the bright side, more children are attending preschool than in 1990. The teen pregnancy rate is at a record low. Juvenile crime is down, and so is juvenile incarceration, though the United States still has a juvenile incarceration rate disproportionately much higher than other developed countries.

But despite the advances, there has been a recent uptick in the single most important factor for predicting a child’s school readiness and life outcomes generally: whether or not he or she lives in poverty. After recessions end, the child poverty rate tends to continue climbing, and current circumstances appear no different. Even with different ways to measure it and different conclusions, KIDS COUNT shows a reversal of some of the gains made earlier in the past quarter-century, with approximately 16.4 million kids officially living in poverty in 2012. The number of children in single-parent homes was up, too: 35 percent, versus 25 percent in 1990.

Break the numbers down by race, and they are more disturbing: At most recent measure, nearly half of African-American children (49 percent) had parents lacking secure employment, and 67 percent lived in a single-parent home. And 63 percent of Latino children did not attend preschool, compared with a national average of 54 percent. (Preschool attendance has improved, but it’s still low across the board.) Attendance rates are higher for African-American children, but recent research has questioned the quality of the programs available to them.

And while the federal government measures poverty for every child under age 18 collectively, young children have been shown to be poorer than older ones, since mothers are more likely to be out of the workforce and parents are less likely to have well-paying jobs when they are younger themselves.

What that means in practical terms is a great need for high quality early childhood education to help prevent the achievement gap that so often is already entrenched for poor children before kindergarten. But many states have been cutting back just as the need intensifies.

Take Illinois, a state ranked just ahead of the middle of the pack for child well being, designated 20th among the 50 states by the Casey Foundation. (Massachusetts and Vermont came out on top, and Mississippi and New Mexico were at the bottom.)

In 2012, the child poverty rate in Illinois was 21 percent, up from 16 percent in 2005. (In 2012, the official federal poverty level was about $23,000 for a married couple with two children and $18,500 for a single parent with two children.) The state comes out ahead of the nation for overall preschool attendance, but a report being released this week by the research and advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children shows that children from middle-class families are participating more than poor kids.

Since 2009, Illinois has dramatically cut the number of seats in a state-funded preschool program targeting low-income children (those whose families are living at 185 percent of the poverty level or below). The number of kids served declined from 95,000 to 70,000. And spending per seat is down 20 percent, adjusted for inflation, meaning that program quality is suffering.

“Money is not the only thing, but it’s hard to have high quality without it,”said Larry Joseph, the research director for Voices for Illinois Children, which partners with the Casey Foundation on its KIDS COUNT work in the state. For example, he noted, paying preschool teachers a livable wage is essential to attract and retain good candidates.

“If Illinois wants to reduce disparities, it needs to increase its investments in early childhood education,”Joseph said, a sentiment that advocates around the country would surely echo. His group is calling on the state to restore preschool funding to 2009 levels at a minimum, which would cost around $115 million.

“All kids can benefit from quality preschool,”he said, “but research has shown that the gains are the largest for poor kids.”

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