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By Leah Asmelash

North Carolina kids continue to struggle with financial and economic well-being, but saw improvements in overall health, while making leaps in education, according to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The annual report examines four parts of children’s lives – health, education, economic well-being, and family and community – those things that kids need most to thrive. North Carolina was ranked 33rd overall in the 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which measures child well-being in the U.S.

It’s a slight improvement from last year when the state was ranked 34th in the nation on doing what it takes to keep kids healthy.

North Carolina fell far in economic well-being, from 30th in 2016 to 37th this year. The state stayed stable in the measures that examine what it takes to create strong families and communities, ranking 36th both last and this year. Those numbers still place the state in the bottom third of the country.

The health of Tar Heel kids fared a little better than last year, with the state’s ranking rising from 33rd in the country to 31st. And North Carolina made big strides in achieving measures of educational proficiency and graduation rates, leaping from 28th to 22nd in the national ranking.

Rob Thompson, who works for the child advocacy group NC Child, said North Carolina’s overall ranking of 33rd in the country is close to what they have ranked in previous years, but the low ranking in economic security and the high child poverty – 23 percent – rate stood out the most for him.

“When you’re looking at high rates of child poverty, there are also a number of negative outcomes that are associated with that,” Thompson said. “We think policymakers can do a lot more on this front.”

Education key to overcoming poverty

One thing Thompson wishes he could see now is an adjustment to the North Carolina Senate’s budget proposal, which currently contains a provision that would eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program help for more than 51,000 children.

“One way that we can at least stay where we are and not go backward is make sure that this provision is not included in the final budget,” he said.

Laila Bell, director of research and data at NC Child, echoed Thompson’s concern.

“Those are low-income kids, and the data shows that those are kids who are hardest hit by a number of challenges,” Bell said. “One way that we ensure we don’t worsen the problem of economic well-being of kids is by not cutting those SNAP benefits.”

That’s not all lawmakers can do to improve child well-being in North Carolina, at least not according to Bell.

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She would like to see the removal of the wait list for North Carolina Pre-K, which stands at about 4,700 kids who could qualify for the benefit. In their budget, lawmakers in the House of Representatives have proposed eliminating that wait list in their budget by the end of 2019.

Bell said eliminating the wait list would not only improve the lives of the 57 percent of preschool-aged kids who are not in a pre-K program in North Carolina, which is higher than the national average. She argued it would also improve fourth-grade reading proficiency – and in our state, 62 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading, the report says.

Bell called removing the wait list “a smart investment that the state can make.”

Fewer teen moms

The report doesn’t only display negatives in North Carolina policy, there are positives as well.

Sarah Verbiest, executive director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Maternal and Infant Health, said she is thrilled by the decline in teenage pregnancy, from 38 teen births per 1,000 births in 2010 to 24 teen births per 1,000 births in 2016.

The number of children without health insurance fell, too, from 8 percent in 2010 to 4 percent in 2015.

“I think that is fantastic,” Verbiest said. “I’m thrilled that most children in this country have access to health insurance because I think that is just a vital right, and I’m really excited to see that we’re doing so well by kids in that respect.”

Yet 23 percent of children in North Carolina still live in poverty, the report finds, with 14 percent of them living in high-poverty areas, and 32 percent of kids living in households with a high housing cost burden — meaning housing costs such as rent or the mortgage consume at least one-third of the family’s income. Verbiest said these are all major issues for families.

“I think that reminds us that we have to work with partners around economic development as we’re thinking about children’s health,” she said. “All of these factors come together – education, economic and health – create an opportunity for all children to be successful.”

Call to action

Bell said helping to preserve access to health insurance for children and for their parents, would help bolster the financial security of families. She said it is unfortunate that tax credits such as the earned income tax credit aren’t still in effect and suggested lawmakers revisit that decision.

“Those types of supports really do help low-income families stretch tight budgets and make ends meet,” Bell said. “There’s a number of evidence-based policy solutions we know could work, it’s really about having the political will to really support kids and families in those ways.”

The data on the economics of childhood in North Carolina suggests that poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated, with more kids living in low-income areas. Bell said this is a problem we can no longer ignore.

“There’s a call to action to ensure that policymakers are making the types of decisions that promote family economic security and ensure children who are growing up in poor and low-income households have the resources and opportunities to achieve their full potential,” she said.

As for what legislators can do with the data, Thompson said he hopes they will look at the report and use it as a guidebook to decide what policy solutions to advance to improve the lives of children in the state.

“There’s a lot of good data in here that if we use it and think about it, can lead to effective policy solutions,” he said. “We hope to be able to work with legislators to do that.”

Leah Asmelash

Leah Asmelash is a rising junior in the Journalism and Mass Communication program at UNC Chapel Hill, and is NC Health News' 2017 summer intern. She's studying studying global studies with a focus on international...