State continues to improve, but still lags the nation, presenting big challenges and opportunities
Georgia climbed two spots to 40th in an annual national ranking of child and family well-being. But even with the improved ranking, more than one in four of Georgia’s kids still struggle to get basic necessities to live healthy and productive lives, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which looks at health, education, economic well-being, and family and community. Kids who live in poverty lack access to healthy food, consistent medical care, and high-quality education. They’re also more likely to be victims of abuse or neglect, and to experience prolonged toxic stress, which can inhibit healthy brain development in young children.
Georgia is following national trends, improving in both education and health indicators over the past five years, while showing mixed results in economic well-being, and in family and community strength.
“More than one in four kids in Georgia are living in poverty, which represents a significant increase from 2008, when the child poverty rate was one in five,” said Rebecca Rice, Georgia KIDS COUNT coordinator. “There is good news, too, though. This year’s child poverty rate is actually lower than last year’s, and that represents the first drop in child poverty in five years.”
Another concern is the increase in the rate of children whose parents lack secure employment since 2008, though the rate has declined since it peaked at 35 percent in 2011. While Georgia is among the nation’s top states for business, there are still significant challenges for all Georgians to achieve economic stability. The most recent data show that 33 percent of Georgia’s kids—one in three—live in homes where neither parent has year-round, full-time employment.
“What is so troubling about employment in post-recession Georgia is that too many of the newly created jobs pay low wages with benefits that fail to meet even basic family expenses,” said Gaye Smith, executive director of Georgia Family Connection Partnership. “And the higher-paying jobs require a post-secondary degree, putting them out of reach for most of our adult population. That’s why we in Georgia are investing heavily in quality early care and education efforts like Quality Rated and the Get Georgia Reading Campaign, to prepare our kids to succeed in school, and ultimately in work.”
Georgia continues to see improvement in some key education indicators, but still faces challenges. Math and reading proficiency has improved during the past five years. But, according to the latest numbers, two-thirds of Georgia fourth graders can’t read proficiently, and more than two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient in math. High-school graduation has improved over the past five years as well, with the rate of students not graduating on time dropping from 35 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in the 2011 – 12 school year.
“The partnerships our private and public sectors have forged are taking us in the right direction,” said Smith. “But there is still significant work to do to ensure that all kids, families, and communities in Georgia are positioned to thrive.”
Pre-school is a key component in preparing kids for school so they can succeed once they get there, but 52 percent of Georgia’s children are not in pre-school. “The good news is that Georgia’s rate is better than the national average of 54 percent, said Rice. “But there aren’t enough quality early childhood education programs available. Only 28 percent of Georgia’s child-care centers and family-care homes were Quality Rated in 2014, limiting access to quality care.”
According to Amy Jacobs, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, the challenge for families who choose out-of-home child care hinges on two key issues—access and cost. “Because of Georgia’s vast geographical area—the largest state east of the Mississippi—many rural counties and communities lack licensed child-care centers and family-care homes,” she said. These rural counties also are economically depressed, so families in these areas struggle with access to, and cost of, child care. One way our state is dealing with these issues is by piloting four Early Education Empowerment Zones (E3Zs), funded by the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant. Depending on the success of these E3Zs, we hope to employ similar strategies in other vulnerable parts of the state to help resolve the issues of access and cost.”
More Georgia kids are also growing up in homes where the head of the household has a high-school diploma. That matters because parental education plays a key role in a child’s economic, educational, and physical development. But even as parental educational attainment improves, the number of children growing up in single-parent families also is on the rise, which presents challenges, because single-parent families struggle with fewer resources and tighter schedules than two-parent households.
In the health domain, Georgia has significantly improved in children without health insurance, now at 9.6 percent, and child and teen deaths, though the state still trails the national average on both indicators. Georgia’s rate of low-birthweight babies has held steady over the past five years, with a rate of 9.5 percent, but is higher than the national average of 8 percent.
“Even as our state celebrates some gains and the economy begins to show signs of life again, we need to acknowledge that not all of Georgia’s kids are equally sharing in the gains,” said Rice. “Children of color are still more likely to grow up in poverty and be unprepared to begin school, and are more likely to struggle in school once they’re there. To ensure that every child shares in the state’s success, we need to use a multi-generational approach to offer education and other opportunities to parents and children in Georgia’s most vulnerable families. State and local government, nonprofits, and community and business leaders must continue to work together, and parents must step up, for the sake of our children—and for our great state.”