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Child poverty research shows how much kids really do count

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In the world of politics, problems like poverty are sometimes described in sweeping, black-and-white terms designed to make solutions seem straightforward and even easy.

But in the real world of policymaking, solutions are in fact more complex, involving many facets of life and sectors of the community.

That's why it's encouraging to see solid research on child poverty that emphasizes not just the economic factors affecting this sad situation, but the family and community aspects, as well.

The "Kids Count" report, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is one of the most widely cited surveys of child well-being in the U.S. Its most recent update, released last week, paints a mixed picture of how kids are faring in America today.

On one hand, the percentage of kids growing up in poverty — a key threat to healthy child development — is up significantly as families have been hard-hit by recession. More than one in five kids live below the poverty line, and a third of kids live in a home in which neither parent has secure employment.

On the other hand, children have made long-term progress in education and health, with high school graduation rates and certain measures of reading ability at an all time high. (There is still plenty of room for improvement: one in four high school students don't graduate on time, and two thirds of fourth graders can't read proficiently.)

Teen substance abuse and child mortality rates are also down significantly, as is the percentage of kids without health insurance.

The report gives a more nuanced picture than it has in the past, due in large part to a revised methodology that divides child well-being into four areas: 1) economic well-being, 2) education, 3) health, and 4) family and community. The emphasis on family and community is largely new, and it is a critical improvement that acknowledges the importance of these factors in kids' lives.

For example, throughout the report, there is a strong emphasis on two-parent families: "Children who have a permanent sense of connection to their families fare much better on average, even if they experience poverty," the report finds. It also notes that in 2010, 36 percent of single-parent families had incomes below the poverty line, compared to 8 percent of married-couple families with children.

Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told the Huffington Post, "We … think it's really important that a child is connected to both parents. From a policy standpoint, states and cities do a lot to intervene in families and too often we intervene in a way that does not maintain that connection. Too often child welfare interventions result in the child being separated from the family."

But families don't exist in a vacuum. They are integrated into neighborhoods, schools, faith communities and other networks that support kids. When good teachers, coaches, and youth leaders are missing, it can make a big difference.

"A low-income child living in a nourishing community — with good schools, safe streets, strong civic institutions, positive role models and connections to opportunities — is more likely to thrive and succeed," according to the report. "That same child living in a community of concentrated poverty — with high crime, poor schools and environmental hazards — is far more likely to get off track in school, become involved with gangs or other negative peer influences and fail to transition to successful employment."

The importance of community is also reflected in the fact that states vary widely on measures of child well-being. Children growing up in the South, the Southwest and Appalachia have a rougher road than those in other regions. Troubling racial and ethnic gaps on practically every measure in the report also manifest, in part, differences in neighborhoods and communities.

Accordingly, the report advocates community investments that focus on the social and economic well-being of neighborhoods. It also suggests "two-generation strategies" that strengthen families by addressing the well-being of both parents and children — for example, by supporting parents as they find employment, get on their feet and work toward self-reliance.

As the U.S. struggles to rebuild from the recession, it faces tough budget and policy decisions. As leaders weigh priorities, choosing where to spend and where to cut, this report gives some good reminders of what is important. Kids do count. Families count. Communities count. Keeping the focus on these priorities is essential to improving the future for the next generation of children, families and Americans.