Leader Blues

Friday, June 20, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Where children come last

Of all the statistical reports that come out every year showing Arkansas near the bottom of national rankings, the one we dread the most is the Kids Count Data Book, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It reports on the condition of children in each of the 50 states.

Kids Count is a downer because it reflects better than anything else the reasons why Arkansas lags so far behind in nearly every other measure of the social and economic condition of the states and because so few remedies seem to offer themselves.

Arkansas ranked 45th in the nation in child well- being, based on data from 2005 and 2006. Arkansas performed worse than the nation as a whole on nine of 10 indicators, our lone exemplary ranking being the school dropout rate. Not so many years ago Arkansas had the highest dropout rate but two or three rounds of school reforms have raised us to 15th best.

We are near the bottom in the rest: low-birthweight babies; infant, child and teen deaths; children born to teens; teens not attending school and not working; children in families where no parent has a full-time job; children in single-parent families; and children living in poverty. The last category embraces all the rest. More children are poor in Arkansas than in just about any other state. The condition is self-repeating. The next generation is almost certain to be the same.

No government program we have seen or that has been proposed will conquer that failing readily. Arkansas actually has taken a few thoughtful steps in the right direction. It has tried to extend health insurance through Medicaid to children whose families are well above the poverty line, but tens of thousands of them still have never been enrolled. The legislature and governor have invested heavily the past three years in preschool education, which is a promising route from recurring poverty, but much more needs to be done. The most promising remedy would be drastically reduced class sizes for kindergarten and early grammar school in poor neighborhoods, which research has shown to escort kids out of poverty in a generation, but the state has considered it way too costly.

That, alas, is the barrier to every potential remedy. When you are poor in spirit as well as the pocketbook, every investment seems too high.