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Kansas ranks 18th nationally in annual report measuring well-being of children

TOPEKA — The state of Kansas ranked 18th in terms of child well-being Monday in the annual report evaluating state-by-state evidence of economic, health, education and family trends influencing development of kids.

Nebraska and Colorado outperformed Kansas in the analysis published for three decades by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, while Kansas surpassed Missouri and Oklahoma in metrics influential to helping children escape poverty. Nebraska ranked seventh overall and Colorado was 15th nationally. Missouri’s cumulative ranking was 30th and Oklahoma came in 42nd. The No. 1 state was Massachusetts, while Mississippi was 50th.

John Wilson, president of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Kansas Action for Children, said Kansas was ranked 11th in economic well-being of children in the 2021 Kids Count report. The state’s marks in the other three categories: education, 23rd; health, 25th; and family and community, 24th. Nebraska wasn’t lower than 15th in any of these categories. Oklahoma registered the five-state region’s worst score: 45th in education.

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The report showed Kansas improved during the past decade in a majority of subcategories within those four fields, including lowering the percentage of children in poverty from 18% to 15%. That left 101,000 children living below the federal poverty line in Kansas. The percentage of single-parent homes fell by 1 percentage point during the decade. In terms of obese 10-to-17-year-olds, there was a 3 percentage point improvement since 2016. The percentage of children living in high-poverty areas fell from 8% in 2012 to 5% in 2019, but that still accounted for 37,000 kids.

In the past decade, Kansas stumbled statistically regarding low birthweight babies and the proportion of 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in preschool.

In 2019, 7.6% of babies born in Kansas weighed less than 5.5 pounds, a threshold raising the probability of developmental problems. The incidence of low-weight babies stood at 7.1% in 2010. Meanwhile, 41,000 of the 3- and 4-year-olds didn’t have access to quality early education programs — a 1 percentage point reduction over the decade.

“I don’t ever want to not celebrate success,” Wilson said during the Kansas Reflector podcast. “But I also don’t want to ignore opportunities for improvement.”

Wilson said the COVID-19 pandemic could be expected to overshadow next year’s Casey Foundation report because so many families struggled as the virus spread across the country. The surge in unemployment and disruption of school blended with other issues to make life more challenging. At the same time, the federal government poured billions of dollars into states in an attempt to counter the pandemic’s influence.

The Kansas Legislature’s decision to forbid expansion of Medicaid to the working poor continues to have a negative impact because it means children miss out on health care, Wilson said. An estimated 43,000 children in Kansas don’t have health insurance.

“State policymakers simply can’t afford to delay expanding Medicaid any longer. Even before the pandemic, the health of many Kansas was being jeopardized,” he said. “When parents are covered, kids are more likely to be covered. And, of course, when kids and parents have health insurance, they’re less likely to experience financial ruin when they have to visit a doctor.”

Lisa Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of the Casey Foundation, said policy decisions at the federal, state and local levels would determine how families recovered from COVID-19.

“Deliberate policy decisions can help them recover, and we’re already seeing the beginnings of that,” Hamilton said. “Policymakers should use this moment to repair the damage the pandemic has caused — and to address longstanding inequities it has exacerbated.”

The foundation recommended Congress make permanent an expansion of the child tax credit. If allowed to expire, the foundation said, the largest one-year drop in child poverty — the movement of 4 million kids over the poverty line — would be followed by the biggest one-year surge.

Other suggestions: state and local governments ought to prioritize recovery investments in hard-hit communities of color, states need to permanently extend unemployment insurance eligibility to contract and gig workers and the dozen states still on the fence on Medicaid ought to expand those programs.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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