Child poverty rate inching up in Douglas County

The number of children living in poverty in Douglas County has been inching up in recent years, resulting in more children qualifying for programs such as free and reduced-price lunches, Medicaid and other social services.

That’s one of the findings in the latest Kids Count Data Report, a national project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks indicators of child health and welfare throughout the country.

While the poverty rate has been growing, however, the report also shows the condition of local children improving in terms of general health and education. Infant mortality rates have come down; immunization rates are up; and more children are accessing early-childhood educational programs including preschool and all-day kindergarten.

Those trends were generally similar to those throughout Kansas, although the profile for Douglas County showed children locally faring better than the statewide average across most categories.

“I think there’s good news and bad news in the report,” said Christie Appelhanz, spokeswoman for Kansas Action for Children, a statewide child advocacy organization. “It was good to see areas where people have paid attention and made investments such as infant mortality. But despite the governor’s commitment to reducing childhood poverty, the number of kids living in poverty continues to climb.”

On Wednesday, the day before the Kids Count report was released, Gov. Sam Brownback announced the formation of a task force on reducing childhood poverty.

“All too often in our state, children who are living in poverty today become tomorrow’s poor parents,” Brownback said in a statement announcing the task force. “Intergenerational poverty such as this affects our state’s long-term productivity and well-being. We need concrete ideas on how to change this pattern.”

According to the Kids Count report, 13.8 percent of children in Douglas County were living in poverty in 2010, up from 12.5 percent in 2006.

Statewide, the childhood poverty rate jumped from 15.3 percent to 18 percent over that same period.

One of the results of that has been a sharp increase in the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. More than a third (35.16 percent) of students in Douglas County now qualified for meal subsidies in 2012, up from 28.33 percent in 2008.

Statewide, nearly half of all student (48.7 percent) qualified for the program, up from 39.8 percent in 2008.

Meanwhile, enrollment in Medicaid and the state Children’s Health Insurance Program have also grown substantially, both in Douglas County and statewide.

But the percentage of children who remain without coverage through either public or private insurance programs has held steady: around 8 to 9 percent in Douglas County. That’s higher than the statewide uninsured rate for children, which had fallen to 6.4 percent as of 2011.

Educational outcomes

One of the strongest areas of improvement in Douglas County was in early childhood education, including growth in all-day kindergarten.

According to the Kids County report, more than two-thirds of children in Douglas County (68.4 percent) had access to all-day kindergarten in 2012, a reflecting the Lawrence school district’s recent decision to expand that program to all elementary schools.

But Douglas County still lags the rest of the state in giving kids access to Head Start, a federally funded preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds who live in low-income households.

According to the report, there were only 23.2 slots available in Douglas County in 2011 for every 100 children who qualify for the program, compared to the state average of 45.1 slots per 100 eligible children.

Cris Anderson, principal at Kennedy Elementary which houses the Lawrence district’s preschool programs, said there are about 130 slots available at her school, a number that has not changed in recent years.

“There has been no additional money,” she said. “There has been an increase in the number of kids who qualify, but we can’t increase the number of slots available.

Appelhanz, the spokeswoman at Kansas Action for Children, said that is likely to be a major budget issue in the upcoming legislative session.

Although Head Start is a federal program, it also receives funding from the state, especially for “Early Head Start,” a program for low-income children age 0-3. That money comes from the state’s Children’s Initiative Fund, which receives money from the settlement of a multi-state lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

“I think in the last decade, Kansas has really made an effort to invest in early childhood education,” Appelhanz said. “For me, the question really is will we continue to make those investments in young children as our state’s fiscal situation is as challenging as we all expect it will be?”

The number of Head Start enrollment slots available per 100 children 3-4 years of age living in families with incomes below the U.S. poverty threshold. Data are provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Region VII. Children living in poverty data are based on poverty estimates and population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The current rate represents the number of slots available for federal fiscal year 2011.