The number of Arkansas children living in poverty fell by 28,000 from 2010 to 2016, as the latest Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS COUNT Data Book reports. Meanwhile, the state had the nation’s highest percentage of teen births, but the number has been falling dramatically both in Arkansas and nationally.
The Data Book says 165,000 Arkansas children, or 24%, lived in poverty in 2016. In 2010, that number was 193,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That year, 28% of Arkansas children were living in poverty.
Arkansas ranks 44th nationally in this category. Nationwide, the average is 19%, down from 22% in 2010. More than 14.1 million children lived in poverty nationwide in 2016, down from 15.7 million in 2010. The child poverty rate had fallen four consecutive years nationally through 2016, the report said.
The KIDS COUNT Data Book ranks child well-being across 16 indicators related to economic well-being, health, education, and family and community. The Foundation has been ranking states since 1990.
For overall child well-being, Arkansas ranked 41st, just behind West Virginia and just ahead of Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma. Two of Arkansas’ other neighbors also ranked lower: Mississippi at 48th and Louisiana at 49th. Two of the state’s neighbors ranked ahead of it: Missouri at 26th and Tennessee at 35th.
New Hampshire ranked first, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and Iowa. New Mexico was last at 50th.
Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), said in an interview that Arkansas had improved in 11 of 15 indicators where current numbers are directly comparable to previous years – 2010 in most indicators. However, 24% of children living in poverty is too high, and too many long-term structural barriers remain for people of color, he said.
Poverty numbers vary widely by race in Arkansas. According to the AACF, while 17% of white children live in poverty, 40% of black children and 34% of Latino children do.
AACF is a grantee of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and works with the Foundation each year on the Arkansas release of the KIDS COUNT Data Book.
Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said the improvement in Arkansas child poverty rates is a result of the job creation that has occurred since the recession.
However, many jobs are low-skilled jobs, and many jobs are going unfilled because employees are failing drug tests, unwilling to move or because of other reasons.
“We’ve got thousands of open jobs that pay well above average wages, and some of them in many cases, really high-wage jobs that just can’t get filled because people aren’t prepared for them or they’re on the sidelines,” he said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called for a reduction of the state upper-income bracket from 6.9% to 6%, while Arkansas legislators are considering various tax reforms. Huddleston said the state should enact an earned income tax credit for lower income individuals. An EITC is a credit equal to a percentage of earnings.
“It would be a mistake just to rely on, especially on upper income tax cuts where rich people can invest those savings anywhere in the country or in the world,” Huddleston said. “Instead, we need to focus on public investments that we know are going to help low-income kids, especially children of color in areas like education, juvenile justice reform, after-school and summer programs, quality pre-K – things that we know would help kids and especially children of color that we’re just not making as big of an investment in now that we need to.”
Zook said the EITC has merit, but Arkansas must lower its top income tax bracket because other states have.
“We’re now surrounded by states that are dramatically lower than our income tax rates, and you can’t be that far out of whack and be competitive,” he said.
Huddleston also expressed support for a potential November ballot proposal raising the minimum wage. Zook disagreed, saying passage would reduce youth employment opportunities by making them more costly to hire.
The state ranked 44th in economic well-being overall. In addition to the poverty statistics, the percentage of children living with parents who lack secure employment dropped from 36% in 2010 to 31% in 2016. Nationally, the percentage fell from 33% to 28%.
The state beat the national average in its percentage of children living in households spending more than 30% of their income on housing. That number in Arkansas has dropped from 32% in 2010 to 26% in 2016. Nationally, the rate fell from 41% to 32%
Arkansas ranked 46th in its percentage of teens not in school or working at 10%. That’s an improvement over the 12% in 2010. Nationwide, the percentage of such teens fell from 9% to 7%.
Arkansas’ worst category was family and community, where it was 45th. It ranked 50th in teen births with a rate of 35 per 100,000 females ages 15 to 19 in 2016 – a significant drop from 2010, when the rate was 52 per 1,000 teens. The report says 3,372 Arkansas teens gave birth that year.
Nationally, the teen pregnancy rate dropped from 34 per 10,000 females to 20. In 2016, 209,809 teens gave birth across the country. While the number has dropped, the report notes that the United States’ teen birth rate is the highest among affluent countries.
In addition to the comparatively high teen birth rate, 38% of the state’s children lived in single-parent homes in 2016, compared to 39% in 2010. Nationally, the figure increased from 34% to 35%. Sixteen percent of Arkansas children lived in high-poverty areas in 2012-16, compared to 17% in 2008-12. Nationally, the figure held steady at 13%. Fourteen percent lived in households where the head did not have a high school diploma in 2016, an improvement over the 16% that did so in 2010. Nationally, 14% of children lived in such homes, which was an improvement over the 15% who did so in 2010.
The state ranked best in health at 30th. Only 4% of children lacked health insurance in 2016, which was a drop from 7% in 2010. Nationally, the percentage dropped from 8% to 4%. The number of child and teen deaths per 100,000 held steady in Arkansas at 34 from 2010 to 2016, which was higher than the national rate of 26. About 10,000 Arkansas teenagers abused alcohol or drugs in 2015-16, or about 4%. Nationwide, it was 1.15 million, or 5%. About 8.8% of Arkansas babies were born with a low birth weight in 2016, the same as in 2010. Nationally, it was 8.2% in 2016 and 8.1% in 2010.
Arkansas ranked 33rd in education. The state was ahead of the national average in high school students not graduating on time. That number dropped from 19% in 2010-11 to 13% in 2015-16. Nationally, the number fell from 21% to 16%.
In other education indicators, 69% of Arkansas fourth-graders weren’t reading at grade level in 2017, which was an improvement over the 71% who weren’t in 2009. That number was above the national average of 65%. However, the percentage of Arkansas eighth-graders not scoring proficient in math increased from 73% in 2009 to 75% in 2017. It held steady at 67% nationwide.
The percentage of Arkansas children ages 3 and 4 who were not in school was 51% in 2014-16, the same as in 2009-11. Nationally, the figure was 52% in both time periods.