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COVID-19 imperils progress made in child well-being, says KIDS Count report

The 2021 KIDS Count Data Book says child well-being took a hit during pandemic and lawmakers need “bold“ action to shore up gains

Travis Pfeil and Eritier Ishimael play basketball in the gym at the Spence Eccles Boys & Girls Club in Salt Lake City.
Travis Pfeil, 15, and Eritier Ishimael, 14, play basketball in the gym at the Spence Eccles Boys & Girls Club in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Child well-being slumped in the Great Recession. And a decade of progress since is at risk because COVID-19’s global pandemic hurt families, causing record unemployment and interfering with childhood development and learning, according to the just-released Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS Count 2021 Data Book.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Child well-being slumped in the Great Recession. And a decade of progress since is at risk because COVID-19’s global pandemic hurt families, causing record unemployment and interfering with childhood development and learning.

That’s according to the just-released Annie E. Casey Foundation KIDS Count 2021 Data Book, an annual reckoning of how states fared in meeting challenges to child welfare. The report takes pre-pandemic data from 2019 — the last full year available — and supplements it with survey data during the pandemic to reach conclusions about the impacts of COVID-19 on the educational, economic and health well-being of America’s children.

“The nation is slowly and unevenly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, which had taken nearly 600,000 lives and infected over 4 million children by June 2021 in the United States alone,” the report stated. “The coronavirus crisis has been the most extraordinary public health catastrophe in a century, shocking the economy, forcing shifts to remote learning and work and widening racial and economic disparities already endemic to American life.”

Before the pandemic, in 2019:

  • 12 million kids (17%) lived below the federal poverty line.
  • 4.4 million children (6%) didn’t have health insurance, which was the first increase in the rate in a decade. Among adults who live with children, the rate was 13%.
  • 1 in 7 high school students (14%) didn’t graduate on time, which was an all-time low.
  • And the share of children living in high-poverty areas fell for the fourth-straight year to 9%.
Preschool children play at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Preschool children play at A to Z Building Blocks in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Surveys during the pandemic found the share of adults in household with children who didn’t have health insurance was beginning to drop, from 13% in 2020 to 11% in March 2021, “suggesting the beginning of a recovery.”

But during the pandemic, 22% of households said they were not sure they could make their rent or mortgage payment on time, a figure that had also dropped to 18% by March 2021.

Based on pre-pandemic data, Massachusetts placed first in the rankings for child well-being, followed by New Hampshire, Minnesota, Vermont and Utah. Utah was also fifth in economic well-being, but dropped to 10th on the education rankings. Utah was just No. 18 for health, but in terms of family and community ranked No. 2, behind New Hampshire.

For overall child well-being, Mississippi was at the bottom, just ahead of New Mexico, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. The report noted that most of those in the bottom had been struggling for some time on measures of how well children do.

The data book also contains recommendations, starting with making permanent the expanded child tax credit, which will be paid monthly for the rest of 2021, starting in July.

“The COVID-19 crisis has brought many families to the breaking point, especially parents and caregivers who have lost jobs and income,” said Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Making the expanded child tax credit permanent will continue providing critical financial support for families who are struggling to make ends meet and help reduce long-standing disparities that affect millions of families of color.”

The Deseret News has explored the impact on families of different policies and proposals. Support for a child allowance — which is what the paid-monthly child tax credit basically is — has been broad, with advocates including Brad Wilcox and Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies, Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University and politicians. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has proposed an expansion of the child tax credit, paid monthly, that advocates call a welcome step toward a child allowance.

But some would rather see needy families receive more support with the cost of child care, for example.

Clare Huntington, the Joseph M. McLaughlin Professor of Law at Fordham Law School, said subsidizing high-quality child care would make it possible for more parents to work.

Dawn O. Braithwaite, professor of communication studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and senior research fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, supports child care subsidies, too, but said her top policy priority would be to ensure access to health care. That sentiment was shared by Brigham Young University’s Kevin Shafer, associate professor of sociology.

Other priorities the experts listed were eliminating marriage penalties in family-related policies, expanding the earned income tax credit and assuring food security.