Updated March 26 at 6:25pm

Rhode Island’s children, notably those of color, challenged by persistent inequities

Hundreds of policy leaders attend annual KIDS COUNT breakfast to learn of progress, deficits

“The [2016 Rhode Island Kids Count] Factbook is one of the most important tools we have, said U.S. Sen. Jack F. Reed, at the KIDS COUNT April 11 breakfast at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick.

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Rhode Island’s children, notably those of color, challenged by persistent inequities

Hundreds of policy leaders attend annual KIDS COUNT breakfast to learn of progress, deficits

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WARWICK – “The [2016 Rhode Island Kids Count] Factbook is one of the most important tools we have, said U.S. Sen. Jack F. Reed, at the KIDS COUNT April 11 breakfast at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. “We wouldn’t be focused and engaged without the Factbook showing us where we are, how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”

More than 500 private and public sector leaders gathered to hear how the Ocean State is – and is not – bettering the lives of Rhode Island’s children. The Factbook, which has grown from 22 to 71 different indicators of child health, celebrates victories and simultaneously sounds the alarm on things that aren’t working as well as they should, said KIDS COUNT Executive Director Elizabeth Burke Bryant.

“We’ve made some progress in health outcomes … but there are some unacceptable and incredible disparities for children of color,” said Linda Newton, RI KIDS COUNT board chair.

More than 97 percent of Rhode Island’s children are covered by insurance, and the RIte Care program is now the top Medicaid-managed program in the United States, said Lisa Hamilton, vice president of external affairs for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and keynote speaker.

“I’m so impressed that you’re not stopping until the 9,600 kids still uninsured are covered,” she said.

She commended the state for its progress on a number of data points, including the significant reductions of children with lead poisoning in the past 20 years and the 41 percent decline in teen birth rates over the past 15 years. Also, Rhode Island has made progress in reducing the number of preterm births and increasing the number of low-income children with access to preventative dental care. Yet, the small state faces many significant challenges: 20 percent of Rhode Island children live in poverty; according to the 2016 Factbook, 25 percent of our children – or 54,000 – live in immigrant families (one or more parent is foreign-born or the child is foreign-born). The median family income for an immigrant family is $44,000; for a U.S.-born family, it’s $71,000.

While there may be no immediate health consequences to the state’s declining number of children between 2000 and 2010, it’s nonetheless noteworthy, as such losses may dictate school closings, teacher transfers, etc. In 2010, Rhode Island had 223,956 children under age 18, a 9.6 percent decline from the 2010 number of 247,822 children. Newport, Glocester and Warren had the steepest declines, and only Central Falls, North Smithfield and West Greenwich experienced any growth at all, albeit an anemic 2 percent, 3.2 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.

At 27 years and going strong, KIDS COUNT is Annie E. Casey Foundation’s longest initiative, said Hamilton, and there is a KIDS COUNT in each of the 50 states; Washington, DC; the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. “If this country is going to remain strong, we need to make a non-negotiable commitment [to ensure that] the next generation is healthy, well-educated and thriving in good families and communities and financially successful,” Hamilton said, echoing Newton’s concern that so many children of color face stubbornly persistent inequities. In two years, children of color will be the majority in this country, and in 2030, the majority of the U.S. labor force.

In 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its first KIDS COUNT Race for Results report, which clearly depicts the profound barriers that African-American, Latino, American Indian and some Asian-American children face on the path to opportunity, said Hamilton. Based on 12 indicators and scoring child well-being on a scale ranging from one to 1,000, the Race for Results index delivers distressing news: In Rhode Island, white children scored the highest, at 740; Asian-American and Pacific Islander children scored nearly 200 points below the national average with their score of 580; African-American children’s score was 372 and Latino children scored 336, Hamilton reported. “If these numbers aren’t a call to action to ensure that children of color are on a path to opportunity, nothing is,” she said.

Hamilton issued her own call to action, reminding the rapt audience, “We have to get it right for all children – and that won’t happen if we don’t get it right for children of color … if you want to predict the future, you have to invent it. We can use our information, our ingenuity and our passion to create a brighter future for children in Rhode Island and across America.”

In separate comments, both state Rep. David N. Cicilline and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed emphasized the growing problem of opioid addiction at birth. Noting that 97 such babies were born in 2014 in Rhode Island, Paiva Weed said, “The real costs are physical and emotional, but there are financial [issues, as well]”; as the estimated cost of treating one such addicted infant is $66,700, compared with an average of $3,500 for an infant who is not addicted.

Raimondo and U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin also spoke briefly; after Christian Blanco, a Classical High School senior and Young Voices Rhode Island representative, delivered his eloquent speech, the audience rose in a standing ovation.

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