Nearly one in three children (29%) residing in Arkansas live in poverty, compared to 22% nationwide, according to a new report from the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
While the state and national economy are improving, child advocates said the rising tide of recovery has not lifted all boats, namely the low-income families still struggling to make ends meet. The 2015 Kids Count data book provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found there are 202,000 children living in poverty in the Natural State. The Foundation states that the child poverty rate has gone up 4% since 2008, when the U.S. economy was in the midst of a recession.
Part of the reason so many children are living in poverty is because 34% of them have parents who lack secure employment. There are also 38% or 253,000 children living in single-parent households. This statistic is up from 36% in the prior year.
The report measures child well-being in four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. In this year’s report Arkansas dropped to No. 44 among the state rankings, falling from No. 41 a year ago.
Another startling statistic is that 55% of the state’s children are not enrolled in any type of pre-Kindergarten program. That is up from 53% last year. Children not enrolled these programs miss out on opportunities for hot meals during school hours.
The state legislature in the last session recognized this gap and appropriated $3 million in additional funding for more pre-Kindergarten programs. It was the first time in eight years that the state legislature more money has appropriated toward the growing needs. The study advocates for early childhood education as a possible solution to some of the problems outlined in the report.
Children living in poverty are often at risk for hunger which is a major mission for the Samaritan Community Center in Rogers and the Community Clearing House in Fort Smith.
In the Fort Smith area, Community Clearing House had 2,700 school kids taking home backpacks of food each Friday of last year. The food was distributed to children in five counties in the two-state area. According to the Clearinghouse 95 different schools and 36 communities have taken part in the program.
A similar program in Northwest Arkansas is a life-saver for thousands of area children, according to the Community Samaritan Center that has overseen and coordinated SnackPacks for Kids for 11 years. In the school year that ended in May and with summer handouts, the Samaritan Community Center anticipates distributing a total of 286,531 snackpacks. That equate to 343,847 pounds of food.
This past year the nonprofit expanded the backpack program from 6,200 per week to an average of 7,500 weekly. These snackpacks were distributed to 120 area schools in Benton and Washington counties.
Hunger intervention programs like those mentioned above are stop gaps funded nearly entirely by charitable efforts and have helped to foster better overall health among Arkansas children, according to the report.
While child poverty is high, another bright spot in the report was an improvement in children’s health. One area where the state does well is health coverage for kids. Only 6% of Arkansas children do not have health insurance, mostly because of the state’s Medicaid program known as ARKids First.
“We have, as a state, made a very concerted effort on kids’ health going back to the late 90s,” said Rich Huddleston, executive director at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. “In fact, this is an area where ARKids has been so effective in covering kids that we may not see that number move for a while. This just shows you what can happen when we truly invest in the future of our children. Arkansas can be a national leader in this area.”
He said the report concludes that more investment is needed in the pre-Kindergarten area.
“That’s an area where we can really make some improvements,” Huddleston added.
The states ranking highest in overall child health well-being were Minnesota, followed by New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa and Vermont. The states ranking the lowest included Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi. Arkansas ranked No. 34 showing improvements in all four domains in this category: low birth weights; uninsured children, child/teen mortality, and teen drug abuse.
“The stark reality is that millions of children, particularly African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians live on the precipice of poverty,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Today, as the economy recovers, we see a widening gap between the living standards of many children of color and other kids. The good news is when we’ve invested in the right strategies and policies – like ARKids First in Arkansas – we have made a difference for kids.”
Guidelines provided by The Casey Foundation for tackling the child poverty concerns include multi-generational strategies. Those include:
• Provide parents with multiple pathways to get family-supporting jobs and achieve financial stability;
• Ensure access to high-quality early childhood education and enriching elementary school experiences; and
• Equip parents to better support their children socially and emotionally and to advocate for their kids' education.