The annual Kentucky Kids Count report on the well-being of the state’s children says that we lead the nation in smoking by pregnant mothers, that one in four Kentucky children live in poverty, and that nearly half or more of Kentucky’s eighth- and fourth-graders aren’t proficient in math or reading, respectively.
“Governors and the Kentucky General Assembly made significant strides in policies to help kids over the last quarter century, such as the Kentucky Education Reform Act, juvenile justice reform, and ensuring more children have health insurance,” Dr. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said in a news release. “But we still face dire challenges…We have a long way to go to get Kentucky where it needs to be for children.”
The report, released Sunday by KYA, is part of the 25th annual release of the County Data Book, which ranks all Kentucky counties on overall child well-being based on 16 indicators, or points of measurement, in four domains: economic security, education, health, and family and community strength.
The report notes that some of the indicators included in the 2015 rankings are different than those included in previous Data Books, so current rankings should not be compared to previous rankings.
The Kentucky counties with the highest overall child well-being rankings are Oldham, Boone, Spencer, Edmonson and Calloway counties. Owsley, Wolfe, Martin, Breathitt and Clay counties scored at the bottom of the list.
“Health impacts every aspect of a child’s life and is one of the most important components of overall child well-being,” says the report.
One of the measures of health in the report is smoking during pregnancy. In Kentucky, county rates varied widely for this measure, from less than 14 percent in Fayette, Jefferson and Oldham counties, to 40 percent or more in Clay, Elliott, Lee, Owsley and Robertson counties.
“Smoking during pregnancy contributes to low-birth-weight and preterm births. In 2011-13, more than one in five (22.5 percent) Kentucky babies were born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy, which is the highest rate in the nation,” says the release.
Other poor health indicators include: 8.7 percent of Kentucky babies are born with low weight, and many are the result of teen pregnancies: 40.6 of every 1,000 Kentucky females age 15-19 gave birth in 2011-13.
The number of teen births varies widely in Kentucky, from fewer than 22 per 1,000 in Calloway, Oldham, Rowan and Woodford counties to more than 80 per 1,000 in Fulton, McCreary, Magoffin, Powell and Wolfe.
The report offers these solutions to improve the health of Kentucky’s children: making sure Kentucky families and their children have health coverage, reducing maternal smoking during pregnancy by enacting a statewide smoking ban, and increasing families’ resources to purchase healthy foods by doubling food-stamp benefits for fruits and vegetables, including from farmers’ markets.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY
More broadly, the report says solutions to improve the well-being of Kentucky’s children must involve a two-generational approach.
“Parental well-being is critical to children’s success; conversely, parents’ ability to succeed in education and employment is affected by how well their children are doing,” says the report.
In 2009-13, nearly one in six births were to women without a high-school diploma, and 32 percent of Kentucky’s children lived in a single-parent family.
In 2012-14, 3.75 percent of children aged 10-17 were in the juvenile justice system. The counties with the smallest percentages of children in the system were Oldham (0.36), Henry (0.62) and Washington (0.77). Those with the highest were Owsley (9.6), Christian (8.9), Grayson (8.9) and Powell (8.6).
“When kids mess up, it is important to hold them accountable in a way that is appropriate for their age and development and help them get back on track for success,” says the release.
One of the well-being indicators measured in the report is economic security, which “refers to a family’s ability to meet its needs in a way that promotes the health and well-being of parents and addresses the physical, emotional and educational needs of children,” says the report.
“The single most important inhibitor to a child’s success is poverty,” says the release. “Poverty impacts children’s ability to learn in school, to be healthy, and to succeed as adults.”
The report says Kentucky’s child poverty rate in 2009-13 was 26 percent, but several counties fared much worse. In Martin, Lee and Wolfe counties, more than half the children lived in poverty; in Carroll, Jackson, Knox and Clay counties, the rate was near 50 percent.
The report makes several suggestions to increase children’s economic security, including: increasing employment opportunities for their parents; offering technical or educational training; expanding the Child Care Assistance Program to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; and enacting an earned-income credit for state taxes, which would allow poor families to keep more of their income.
Another indicator measured in the report is education, which will determine the quality of Kentucky’s future workforce, says the report.
Kentucky continues to struggle in this area, with 50 percent of its kindergartners rated not ready to learn; 48 percent of its fourth graders not proficient in reading; 56 percent of its eighth graders not proficient in math; and 12 percent of its high school students not graduating on time.
Leslie County was the only Kentucky county that graduated all its students on time in 2014-15, while Franklin, Jefferson and Breathitt counties had the lowest rates of on-time graduation.
In 12 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, 70 percent or more of eighth graders are considered not proficient in math. “Math proficiency in eighth grade is a key indicator of a child’s readiness for higher education,” says the report.
Proficiency in reading is an indicator of on-time graduation, according to the report. About 75 percent of fourth-graders were rated not proficient in Breathitt, Robertson and Owsley counties; Calloway and Morgan counties ranked best, with the lowest such percentage.
Half of incoming kindergartners in Kentucky are not prepared for school. “Children who start formal education with strong school readiness skills tend to maintain that advantage throughout their elementary school years,” the report says. In other words, it’s hard to catch up.
A few of the report’s recommendations to improve education include expanding access to early-childhood education by increasing pre-school eligibility levels, and reforming system-wide funding and accountability in Kentucky’s juvenile justice, child welfare and behavioral health residential settings.
Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.