Success, Concerns Detailed in New “Kids Count” Report
By State Senator Julie Lassa
Nothing could be truer than the old saying that children are our future. Everything from the economic health of our communities to the physical and emotional health of our citizens depends to a large extent on the care and education of our kids. Heathy, well-nurtured, well-educated children grow up to lead happy, successful lives and contribute to our economic vitality and social well-being. Children who don’t have that kind of start can struggle throughout their lives, increase demands on our health care system and social services, and face higher unemployment and underemployment.
If we want to build a better future for our state, then, we would do well to pay attention to how our kids are doing. One valuable resource to help us do that is the annual Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Data Book ranks states on a number of factors that affect children. The good news is that Wisconsin compares pretty well with other states, ranking 13th overall and in the top 15 on most individual factors, including health, economic well-being, education, and family and community indicators. However, the report and the associated Kids Count Database do contain figures that should concern us as we look at our children’s well-being and its potential impact on Wisconsin’s future.
More than a quarter million Wisconsin children live in poverty; more than one in four live in homes where the parents lack secure employment. Unfortunately, the percent of Wisconsin families who are low income and have children has been trending upward for the past five years. The percent of children who have at least one unemployed parent stands at 26 percent – only one point lower than in 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession.
Our education figures are even starker. The number of three- and four-year-olds who aren’t enrolled in preschool stands at 61 percent, and is even higher for low-income children. Sixty-five percent of fourth graders aren’t proficient in reading, and 68 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math. None of this bodes well for preparing the next generation of Wisconsin’s workforce, which we know will already be challenged as our aging population continues to enter retirement.
What can we do to improve the lives of our children? As the Kids Count Data Book points out, the health and well-being of children is directly tied to the security of the families they grow up in. That should be a real concern here in Wisconsin, where families are falling out of the middle class faster than in any other state in the union. Job growth in Wisconsin has been anemic compared to the nation and the Midwest, and many of the new jobs being created are low-wage, insecure positions. Just as our future economic well-being depends on the well-being of our children today, our kids’ success depends on helping families stay strong.
I am currently completing work on a series of bills aimed at helping middle class families maintain their economic security and nurture their children. By expanding access to overtime pay, providing a child tax credit and a childcare credit for working families, we can help keep Wisconsin families strong and financially secure. As a state we also need to take seriously our obligation to adequately fund our public schools, so our children get the high quality education they need to compete in tomorrow’s workforce. Much research has shown that investing in programs that help children pays the greatest dividends in terms of economic growth of any public program. To build a better future for Wisconsin, one with successful, financially secure children and families, we need to take care of our kids today.