Youth Well-Being Hit Hard In Struggling Economy

The child poverty rate is up 18 percent since 2000, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2011 Kids Count Study. The study ranks Louisiana and Mississippi as the worst states in terms of kids' and teens' education, economic standing, and birth and death rates. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with the foundation's president, a researcher who compiled well-being stats in Louisiana, and a youth health advocate in Mississippi.

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TONY COX, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michel Martin is away. Coming up violent flash mobs in Philadelphia, a thieving flash mob in Maryland. Teens gone wild have local officials calling for youth curfews to curb crime. But do they work, or just encourage police harassment of law-abiding young people? We'll ask in a moment.

But first in the midst of the economic downturn many politicians have offered solutions for easing the impact on their constituents. But a new report suggests a group with no vote and very little voice in the public debate has lost tremendous ground in recent years, the nation's children.

New data out today from the Annie E. Casey Foundation sheds light on the state of childhood well-being in this country and the results of the 2011 Kids Count study are unsettling. It finds that the children poverty rate has increased by 18 percent since the year 2000, effectively wiping out a decade of gains made in the 1990's. Here to discuss the report is the President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Patrick McCarthy. He joins us from his office in Baltimore and in the interest of full disclosure, the Annie E. Casey Foundation supports coverage of children and family issues on this and other NPR programs.

Also joining us today, Teresa Falgoust. She is the Kids Count coordinator for Louisiana, a state that is working to improve it's status near the bottom of the list. She joins us from New Orleans. And also with us from Mississippi, Valerie Long. She is the executive director of Catch Kids. They provide high quality free healthcare services to children in Tupelo and some of the surrounding areas. Let me say welcome to all three of you.

TERESA FALGOUST: Thanks for having me.

PATRICK MCCARTHY: Thank you, happy to be here.

COX: Patrick McCarthy I'd like to begin with you. One decade up, one decade down. What does this report tell us about how this economic downturn has been affecting our children?

MCCARTHY: Well, the results are really kind of disturbing. What we see is that children are suffering by being in poverty. We're seeing that kids are being affected by foreclosure with 5.3 million children just between 2007 and 2009 hit by foreclosure of the houses where their families live, and we're seeing that children are increasingly likely to be living in homes where this is long-term unemployment.

COX: I'm looking at the list of indicators: infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, teen birth rate, percent of teens not in school, percent of teens not attending school and so on and so forth but one caught my eye and I'd like to get you to explain why this is included in determining who is in poverty and who is not. It's number ten, the percent of children in single parent families. Why is that an indicator?

MCCARTHY: We use that because the research shows that kids who grow up in single parent families face higher odds as they try to move towards opportunity. Most of the research shows that kids who show up and grow up in intact two parent families actually do better long term. So we see that as one measure of child well-being. Now, it doesn't mean that all children who grew up in single parent families are at high risk but when you combine growing up in a single parent family with poverty then it really increases the odds against success for that child.

COX: Of the states that were studied Mississippi, Louisiana at the bottom of the list. Teresa Falgoust, you're in Louisiana, one of the areas where nationally there has been improvement has been in the teen death rate and yet in Louisiana that has not been the case, not good news there. Why is it?

FALGOUST: One of the major factors driving teen death rates, both in Louisiana and nationally, is the rate of accidents among teens. Obviously vehicle accidents are a major cause, but one area that's special concern for Louisiana is our high teen homicide rate. We have a higher teen homicide rate than any other state in the country and it's actually 2.4 times as large as the national average.

COX: Can you tell us why that is if - does anyone know why?

FALGOUST: Well, you know, our major city, New Orleans, has had a historically high homicide rate and it's actually been getting worse for teens in recent years there. And so, I think there's really a push locally to make sure that kids get connected to school and quality out of school time activities and also to make sure that disconnected youth get connected to education and workforce opportunities.

COX: Valerie Long, you're in Mississippi at the bottom of the list and seven of the ten indicators of child well-being including four of the five health related indicators. Presuming that this does not come as news to you, what are you and your organization doing - what can you do to try to combat this?

VALERIE LONG: Our organization basically focuses on having access to care, making it more accessible to our underserved children, children that have barriers to accessing the more traditional facilities. We offer healthcare in the schools in three counties that we serve and not only that we offer free care in community evening-based clinics. Our physicians volunteer their time to see these children at no cost and any medications that are prescribed for the children can be filled at no cost through partnerships with local pharmacies. And then we offer dental care for those children that do not have dental insurance or state Medicaid or CHIPs for insurance. We're trying to fill in that gap between accessibility to care.

COX: If you're just joining us I'm Tony Cox. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are talking about child well-being around the country. I'm speaking with Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation which has just released a report on that issue. Also with us Teresa Falgoust who compiled data for that report for the state of Louisiana and Valerie Long the executive director of Catch Kids in Tupelo, Mississippi.

That is a program that provides high quality free healthcare to children. Patrick McCarthy, you've identified what the problems are. What challenges do you see going forward to try to address them?

MCCARTHY: Well, we see the importance of investing in a two generation strategy to ensure that families and kids still have opportunity. Number one, we know from all the research that growing up in poverty leads to bad outcomes. More recent research suggests that kids who slip into poverty as a result of recession, they themselves also as they grow into adulthood face longer odds and are more likely to be unemployed as adults and more likely to be in poverty as adults. They're less likely to complete their education, etcetera.

So, the first thing we need to do is to recognize that during a time of economic stress and strain on families we've got to provide the kind of safety net and supports that are necessary to ensure that more kids don't slip into poverty. Some of the research suggests that as many as a third of the children who slip into poverty due to a recession can be rescued from that fate with the availability of things like extended unemployment insurance, earned income tax credit, and child tax credit, and building assets for families so they have a buffer against it.

The second thing we need to do is invest now in the earliest education for children. We know from all the research again that the early years are critical, so investing in prenatal care in high quality childcare and preschool and in the early elementary years so that every child is reading proficiently by the end of third grade becomes critical for their own long term success.

COX: How might all of this be impacted by the ongoing debt reduction discussions?

MCCARTHY: Well, we think that the deficit problems that states face and the overall national debt crisis are certainly critical issues that policymakers have to address, but it's also an opportunity to focus and, from our standpoint, we need to focus on what's most important and what's most cost effective and what's going to build the long term future of the country.

And of all of those variables, in fact, kids are most important. The most cost-effective investment that the federal and state governments can make is in the success of children and it's really our legacy towards the future.

We really have to ask how the decisions we make in 2011 are going to affect the states and the country as we look towards 2031, 2041, 2051. What kind of state, what kind of country do we expect to have if we don't invest in our children now?

COX: Valerie Long in Mississippi, how optimistic can you be, given the numbers that we are seeing from this report in terms of the future of the children in your state, particularly?

LONG: Well, with efforts that are going forth now to increase, of course, the early childhood learning, as well as to increase more access to care, I'm hopeful. It's slow, as I'm sure you know but, you know, I am hopeful that, with more education of the parents, as well as, you know, just general education, that we will see Mississippi doing better as far as for our children.

COX: Well, Teresa, with the list of problems facing you as well in Louisiana with regard to the well-being of children, are you targeting one of these areas over another? Which is the most important, most pressing?

FALGOUST: Yeah, I think the two-generation strategy really is critical. And so in Louisiana one of my favorite programs is the Nurse Family Partnership Program, which actually provides home visits from nurses to young mothers throughout their pregnancy and through the child's first years of life. And that program has been shown not just to improve outcomes for kids but also for the mother, increasing employment and education levels.

COX: I'll bring the last question to you, Patrick McCarthy, and I appreciate the time that you have given us.

You've talked about this long-term kind of approach that needs to be taken, but what about in the short term? What things can be done? What things would you expect to be done right away?

MCCARTHY: Well, we know what has been critically important over the first several years of the recession and this period of extended unemployment for many families.

Number one, we've got to prevent children from slipping into poverty and investments in unemployment insurance, extending unemployment insurance while unemployment is high is critical.

Number two, again, the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, all of that is important ways to provide immediate income to families so their kids don't slip into poverty.

COX: Let me stop you there only because our time - Patrick, I apologize for stopping you there, but the time has run out on us, unfortunately.

Patrick McCarthy, President, CEO, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Teresa Falgoust from Louisiana and Valerie Long from Tupelo, Mississippi. Thank all three of you, actually, for being with us today.

MCCARTHY: Thank you very much.

FALGOUST: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox sitting in for Michel Martin.

Coming up, we turn to a story of hope and healing in Liberia. That nation suffered more than a decade of brutal civil war. Now, it's boosting the number of mental health providers to deal with the aftermath. That's in a few moments.

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