Kids Count: With Poverty on the Rise, Can We Do More With Less?

girl_arms_raised_350Looking at the Kids Count 2012 map of the United States brings to mind the game of Russian roulette. With luck, some children find themselves living in states where the numbers (representing the statistical chance of a good life) bode well, or at least OK, for them.

Other kids, notably those living in a dark blue swath across the bottom of the country, are most likely to live in poverty, struggle in school, and abuse drugs.

Yet nowhere are children immune to the recession that has reshaped the story of U.S. families over the past half-decade.

The newest report, released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and regarded as a leading indicator of U.S. children’s well-being, reflects overall what we already know, and many of us have acutely felt, over the past several years:

The percentage of children in the United States living in poverty rose, from 18 percent to 22 percent between 2006 and 2010 (the most recent year for which data was just released). That’s more than one in five kids who live below the poverty line.

Thirty-three percent of kids in 2010 lived in a family where no parent had full-time, year-round employment (compared to 27 percent in 2008).

Thirty-four percent of children lived in single-parent families in 2010, up from 32 percent in 2006.

kidscountmapThere is some good news overall, notably in education, where kids are doing better (or falling below proficiency levels less) in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math achievement. More high school students are graduating on time. And a higher percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds across the nation are going to preschool, a critical step for early learning and a reliable predictor for later achievement.

Washington State ranks 18th overall. Our kids are obviously doing far better than those in Mississippi and New Mexico (Nos. 50 and 49, respectively) but still are a long way from children in New Hampshire (No. 1).

A deeper look at some of the indicators makes me wonder if Washington students, teacher and parents are somehow managing to do more with less.

In 2010, 18 percent of Washington kids lived in poverty; in 2001 it was 13 percent.

In 2011, 46 percent of students enrolled in public K-12 schools in Washington applied for free or reduced-price meals at their school, compared with 31 percent in 2000.

Yet 75 percent of Washington students are graduating on time, a number that held steady through the recession. Achievement scores mostly held steady from 2008-2011 (except for the percentage of third graders meeting standards for math, which dropped).

Washington state’s overall rank (comparing us to all other states) within four key indicators tells us a lot about where our kids are benefitting and where there’s much room for improvement:

Economic rank: 28
Education: 26
Health: 4
Family and Community: 17

As my grandmother used to say, money doesn’t grow on trees. Experts have estimated that the recent recession has wiped out nearly two decades of Americans’ wealth and that it will take a generation, maybe more, for some families to recover.

It takes a village to keep kids out of poverty and help them achieve. Public programs, strong schools, jobs for parents — all are key. But nothing is perhaps as important as the support of adults.

What can we all do, not only for our own children but for the community’s children, to shield them, prop them up, and push them ahead?

natalie-redIn between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap's Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. She was also once chased by rabid raccoons. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and two school-aged daughters.

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