The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been working to promote the well-being of America’s children for more than 60 years. So the Foundation was among the funders that came to mind when GrantStation decided to explore issues related to poverty following our most recent State of Grantseeking survey.
With many of you reporting that a significant number of your clients were at or below poverty level, we wondered: Is there a glimmer of hope for moving families out of that category?
"What Are We Thankful For? Progress!"
I checked in with Laura Speer, who supervises Casey’s KIDS COUNT project, which collects comprehensive data about children and families at the national and state level—and promotes policies to improve their welfare in areas like education, finances, and healthcare.
Before talking with her, I perused Casey’s website and was struck by an article with this headline: “What Are We Thankful For? Progress!” It was a welcome reminder that although poverty is still a daunting problem in the United States, the news is not all bleak, especially as the country has moved out of recession.
"We try to have some optimism at the Casey Foundation,” Speer said when I asked her about it. “It can’t be all bad news all the time.”
Among the bright spots the article highlights:
- The nation’s child poverty rate fell from a peak of 23 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2016.
- The proportion of high school students not graduating on time fell from 21 percent in 2010-2011 to 17 percent in 2014-2015.
- The teen birth rate has fallen 63 percent since 1990, from 60 births per 1,000 teens to 22 births per 1,000.
- Just 4 percent of kids, or 3.3 million, lacked health insurance in 2016. That’s down from 10 percent, or 7.3 million kids, in 2008.
- In 2015, 33 percent of kids were growing up in a household led by someone with a bachelor’s degree or higher—up from 28 percent in 2007 and 2008.
Take one of those statistics, the lower teen birth rate, which is attributed to greater and more effective contraceptive use and delayed sexual activity. Speer says this has long-range implications for fighting poverty: If girls postpone childbearing, they are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college, which will benefit their future families. “There’s some hopefulness in terms of what could happen for the next generation,” she says.
Laura Speer, Associate Director for policy reform and advocacy.
Of course, having a bit of optimism doesn’t mean we should be Pollyanish. After all, a 19 percent poverty rate for children is nothing to brag about. For almost 30 years, Casey has published an annual KIDS COUNT Data Book: State Trends in Child Well-Being that provides a detailed picture of how children are faring in the United States, ranking states on various indicators.
The 2017 report, issued last summer, acknowledged progress in some areas, but a foreword written by Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO, noted that “child poverty rates remain high and more families live in neighborhoods with a high concentration of poverty.”
He continued: “Despite modest gains in academic performance, far too many children are below grade level in reading and math. Even where we see improvements, deep racial and ethnic disparities remain.”
And of course, it’s hard to ignore the shift in political environment since President Trump took office a year ago. Efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act and jockeying over the Children’s Health Insurance Program threaten to reverse the progress that has been made to increase health-insurance coverage for both children and their families.
Casey is also concerned about the Administration’s tough line on immigration, including stepped-up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. Deportations can contribute to child poverty by removing a breadwinner from the family, Speer says.
Trends like that make it more important than ever for grassroots groups to advocate on behalf of their clients with state and federal policymakers, Speer says. Casey funds a KIDS COUNT network of child welfare advocacy groups in each state that keep an eye on government policies. It also awards grants for groups that advocate in areas like healthcare, including faith groups, Speer says.
Advocates should press legislators, especially in conservative areas, to “be courageous” in protecting kids and families, Speer says. After all, they’re supposed to represent their constituents. “That’s their job,” she says. “Don’t let them forget it. That’s the power of the grassroots.”