R.I. KIDS COUNT: Annual Factbook shows slight increase in child poverty, poverty gaps remain

RHODE ISLAND KIDS COUNT'S latest Factbook, released Tuesday, stated that about 18% of children ages 18 and younger lived in poverty, which increased by a little more than 1% from 2017.
RHODE ISLAND KIDS COUNT'S latest Factbook, released Tuesday, stated that about 18% of children ages 18 and younger lived in poverty, which increased by a little more than 1% from 2017.

PROVIDENCE – After back-to-back years of decreases in the amount of children living in poverty, Rhode Island saw a slight increase in 2018, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT noted in its latest Factbook released Tuesday.

The nonprofit said in book that 36,135 children ages 18 and younger, about 18%, lived in poverty in the Ocean State in 2018, which is up from 16.6% the previous year. That figure ranked No. 28 in the country and worst among the six New England states, KIDS COUNT said.

The annual Factbook offers 70 indicators within five categories – family and community, economic well-being, health safety and education – showing declines and improvements regarding child well-being in the state. The report, KIDS COUNT said, also offers Rhode Island lawmakers direction on where to make policy decisions to support children and families.

There were year-to-year decreases in percentages of black and Latino children living in poverty, according to the report. Thirty-five percent of Latino children and 26% percent of black children lived below the poverty threshold from 2014 to 2018, KIDS COUNT said, marking declines from 40% and 31%, respectively.

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But KIDS COUNT still says it remains a problem that children face, among other things, unequal educational opportunities, inadequate housing, less access to health care and lesser chances for “enriching after-school and summer activities.”

The poverty gaps are wide, the report found. Only 14% of white children live in poverty and the median family income for white families int he state was $88,569, KIDS COUNT said, compared to $49,980 for black families and $40,624 for Latino families.

“Those are wide and unacceptable gaps,” KIDS Count Executive Director Elizabeth Burke Bryant told Providence Business News Monday. “It is absolutely essential that we understand these gaps … appear through our Factbook. They persisted and they need to be addressed to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.”

Burke Bryant said the gaps have persisted because of “long term systemic racism and barriers to opportunity” and they need to be addressed. She said it’s been “far too long” where children of color have not had “the same opportunities” in education to allow them to succeed.

Skills gaps in math and reading proficiency remain, the report said. Only 48% of third-graders met expectations on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System English language arts assessment, with only 19% of low-income eighth-graders being proficient, KIDS COUNT said. In math, 22% of low-income third-graders were proficient, compared to 51% of higher-income students, and just 10% of low-income eighth-graders and 37% of high-income eight-grade students were proficient.

Other data outlined in the report states there was a decrease in juveniles referred to truancy court; increases in e-cigarette use and prescription misuse by high school students; increased need for domestic-violence services; improvements in high school graduation and enrollment; and decreases in school suspensions.

This year’s report also offers new data, including education outcomes for homeless children and childhood obesity.

Twenty-five percent of third-grade homeless students met expectations on the RICAS English language arts assessment, KIDS COUNT said, compared to 48% of non-homeless students. The results are worse for math, with 11% of homeless students being proficient compared to 36% of non-homeless students. The high school graduation rate for homeless students last year was 65%, KIDS COUNT said. For non-homeless students, it was 84%.

Regarding childhood obesity, KIDS COUNT said a recent study of more than 65,000 deidentified records in 2018 found that 13% of children in the state ages 2 to 17 are overweight and 17% are obese. Older children are more prose to become either overweight or obese, KIDS COUNT said, and Latino and black children have “higher rates” of overweight and obesity.

COVID-19 impacts

KIDS COUNT also said it is currently focusing on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in which Rhode Island children and families are “deeply impacted” by the changes brought about it. Among the challenges families are facing with the crisis are financial strains caused by unemployment, distance learning being a “new venture” for educators and students, and child care programs temporarily closing that are leaving “serious obstacles” to individuals that have to balance parenting and working.

“Families are being impacted by COVID across the board. However, low-income families are going to be particularly impacted by the crisis,” Burke Bryant said. “That is a major concern going forward.”

Children’s mental health during the health crisis is a key focus area for the nonprofit, Burke Bryant said. In 2019, 15% of high school seniors in the state reported attempting suicide at least once during the past year and the number of teenagers ages 13 through 19 who were admitted to the emergency room or were hospitalized after a suicide attempt between 2014 and 2018 doubled – with 25 children ages 20 and younger dying in that same period.

Burke Bryant said there is a “lot of focus” making sure adolescents have access to mental health services because of the “likelihood of the increased need for them.”

She also said Gov. Gina M. Raimondo announced that Kids Link RI, a hotline offered by Lifespan Corp. that connects parents and caregivers to mental health services in the state, will increase capacity during the crisis.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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