Health

Poverty grips more than a quarter of Kentucky’s kids.

About 260,000 children in Kentucky live in poverty, and more are living in pockets of poverty across the state than in years prior, according to the 2016 Kids Count report.

The report, released Tuesday, is produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and co-released with Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, called this year’s findings bad news for Kentucky’s kids and families. The state ranks 35th in the overall economic well-being of children, per the report. That’s a slightly worse ranking than in 2015, Brooks said.

“Are we, as a commonwealth, content with being in the bottom third of states when it comes to child well-being,” he said.

The report pulls data from the U.S. Census 2014 American Community Survey, which showed 26 percent of Kentucky kids living in poverty. That’s up from 23 percent in 2008. Nationally, about 22 percent of children live in poverty.

Brooks said poverty is the most pernicious challenge to young people in Kentucky.

“I think poverty touches on every other aspect of growing up,” he said. “Health, education, safety.”

The best way to combat childhood poverty in Kentucky is to approve a statewide earned income tax credit, he said. Such a measure would allow a more substantial tax refund for families meeting certain income thresholds. The federal model currently in place allows a two-child family earning less than $50,000 a year to get back up to $5,500 annually.

“Because it puts money in local economies, it’s not a Frankfort budget-buster, it actually helps build state budgets,” Brooks said.

If enacted, a state EITC could generate an estimated $134 million more for low and middle income families, according to a 2013 report from Brooks’ group.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat, has long pushed for the approval of a state earned income tax credit. He did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Wayne Corporation said he is on vacation “for several weeks.”

State Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat, said an earned income tax credit would be a broader effort to assist poor Kentucky residents compared with the state’s family size tax credit. He said any effort to address establishing a state earned income tax credit would be lumped together with a larger push for comprehensive tax reform.

‘Not In A Good Place’

Other elements factoring into the overall economic well-being of children include the number of kids living in homes burdened with high housing costs (28 percent) and the number of teens not working and not enrolled in school (8 percent).

Brooks said the 19,000 teen-aged residents in Kentucky who are unemployed and out of school is “a flashing red light.”

“You can bet that those 19,000 teenagers are not in a good place,” he said.

To address this, Brooks said state and local leaders should continue efforts aimed at guiding kids in the state’s foster care system toward success.

Brooks praised Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in a blog post last month for introducing a program earlier this year that looks to find jobs for young people aging out of the Kentucky foster care system. The program, dubbed Fostering Success, is a prelude, Brooks said, to “an era of unprecedented wins for the most vulnerable children among us.”

The report highlights other areas of concern as well.

For instance, nearly 60 percent of fourth graders in Kentucky aren’t reading at a proficient level, and nearly 72 percent of eighth graders aren’t proficient in math, per the report.

But it’s not all bad.

Brooks cheered findings showing childhood health is improving in the state.

The 2016 report shows decreases in the rate at which babies are born with low birth-weight (8 percent), the number of children living without health insurance (4 percent), the number of teens abusing alcohol or drugs (4 percent) and the death rate among children and teens (28 per 100,000).

Another takeaway is the finding that nearly 328,000 children in Kentucky live in single-parent families. That’s about 35 percent of the state’s child population and a mirror of the national rate, per the report.

“If we’re going to lift families up … we’ve got to adopt new models and new practices to reach new kinds of families,” Brooks said.

Jacob Ryan is the Metro Affairs reporter for WFPL.