Study finds child poverty up, some progress in education, health

2017-11-14 | The Daily Independent

Nov. 14--JEFFERSONTOWN -- More children live in deep poverty in three of five Northeast Kentucky counties than five years ago, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit child advocacy organization.

In all of the FIVCO counties -- Boyd, Carter, Greenup, Lawrence and Elliott -- there are more children whose households are teetering on the brink of poverty, according to the organization.

The income findings are part of the organization's annual Kids Count County Data Book, which compiles data on child well-being in four categories -- economic security, education, health and community and family.

The study's health findings were more encouraging; showing mostly decreases over five years in the five counties of ten births, low birthweight babies, expectant mothers smoking during pregnancy and numbers of uninsured children.

Education numbers showed some progress and some setbacks in kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading proficiency, eighth-grade math proficiency and high-school students graduating on time.

The income figures cut to the core of child well-being because poverty affects physical and emotional health and the ability to perform well in school, according to Tammy Steele, who administers the Greenup County School District's McKinney Vento program for children who are homeless or don't have secure permanent housing.

There are at least 10 high-school students in the district who don't live with either parent or with relatives. Most are couch-surfers, and though the district works with them their schoolwork typically suffers. "It's a challenge," Steele said.

The district has seen an increase from 185 to 200 per week this year in its brown bag program, which sends food home each weekend with students who otherwise would go hungry, Steele said.

Rosy national economic headlines don't apply to poverty-stricken families, she said. ""It will take these families longer to get on their feet," she said.

Healthwise, babies seem to be getting off to a more promising start. The study showed fewer mothers smoking during pregnancy and fewer low-birthweight babies in all five counties, also fewer children without insurance coverage. Teen births were up in Carter, Greenup and Lawrence counties.

The relationship between smoking and birthweight is clear, according to Boyd County Health Department nurse Kathy Anderson. "Mothers that smoke during pregnancy tend to have lower birth weight babies," she said.

Their babies also have to contend with compromised immunization and pre-natal exposure to nicotine and may be predisposed to start smoking, she said.

Boyd County showed improvement in all health areas. Health department initiatives such as a home visit program for first-time parents are a factor, Anderson said.

Also, all schools in the county have nurses on the grounds or on call, and the family resource and youth service centers play a part in child health maintenance, she said.

Education findings were a mixed bag. Five of nine school districts in the region showed more kindergartners ready to learn, a category identified in recent years by the state as a high priority.

In Boyd County, the Boyd County and Ashland Independent districts showed improvement in the category. Effective pre-school programs are a factor, according to Ashland Head Start director Teresa Conway.

The Ashland program recently expanded from a partial-day to a full-day program, which allows more instructional time, she said.

It also allows more latitude for evaluation of children's progress, because preschool employs ongoing assessments rather than the periodic assessment system in primary through high school, she said.

Further, because preschool emphasizes socialization, the additional time allows children to develop those skills, she said.

Five of the nine showed more eighth-graders proficient in mathematics, a concern because "success in math sets students up to excel beyond high school, according to a statement from Kentucky Youth Advocates.

However, six of the districts showed fewer fourth-graders proficient in reading and five showed fewer high-school students graduating on time. Statewide, almost nine out of 10 students graduate on time, according to KYA.

The family and community category measured births to mothers who didn't complete high school, children in out-of-home living, children locked up in the juvenile justice system and children living in high-poverty areas.

The category illustrates how stable families and supportive communities help in child development, and state emphasis on a youth justice system that responds effectively and helps children stay on a success track is a factor, according to KYA.

Four of the five counties showed fewer children in the system; there was no data for Elliott County.

But four of the counties, all except Greenup, showed more children living out of home -- including residential facilities, foster care and relative placements.

The entire study is available at the kyyouth.org.

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mjames@dailyindependent.com