Monday, May 21, 2018
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Making kids count

How are Ohio's children doing these days? Worse than in most other states -- and that record needs to improve, fast.

This year's edition of the annual Kids Count data book, released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks Ohio 27th among the states in overall child well-being (Michigan is 32nd). Our state does better than average in education and child health (barely), worse in economic well-being and on family and community indicators. None of the ratings will, or should, inspire civic pride:

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● Ohio ranks 30th in children's economic well-being, measured by its percentage of children who live in poverty or in households with burdensome housing costs, or whose parents lack steady jobs, and of teenagers who are neither in school nor working. Michigan ranks 36th.

● Ohio ranks 18th in education, measured by children who are not enrolled in preschool, 4th graders who aren't proficient in reading, 8th graders who aren't proficient in math, and high-school students who don't graduate on time. Michigan ranks 33rd.

● Ohio ranks 24th in child health, measured by its rates of low-birth-weight babies, children who lack health insurance, child and teen deaths, and teenagers who abuse alcohol and drugs. Michigan ranks 22nd, but has shown notable improvement in extending medical coverage to children, the report says.

● Ohio ranks 32nd in family and community indicators: rates of children who live in high-poverty areas or in families with a single parent or whose head of household lacks a high-school diploma, and teen births. Michigan ranks 29th.

It's no surprise that the economic well-being of Ohio's children -- and their parents -- has declined during the Great Recession. The number of children living in high-poverty areas of the state has risen by 71 percent since 2000, according to the report, confirming other studies that show poverty in Ohio has gotten both worse and more concentrated.

The educational and health status of Ohio children has generally, if not greatly, improved since the middle of the past decade. But because that was mostly true across the country, the report notes, our state cannot take special credit for progress in these areas.

So this surely is no time for Ohio to disinvest in child health care and public schools, which can help ensure that all children reach their potential, not merely a fortunate few. Rather, state government should start to restore the slashes in aid to schools that Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly have made in the current two-year budget, and expand its Medicaid program of health insurance for poor and disabled Ohioans.

Such measures would be better public policy than yet another income-tax cut that would disproportionately benefit the state's richest residents.

Nor is it especially surprising that children in Lucas County are doing worse than their counterparts across Ohio. While 23 percent of children throughout the state live in poverty, the figure is 29 percent in Lucas County.

The rate of low-birth-weight babies is 11 percent higher in the county than statewide. The share of children who get free or low-cost school lunches -- another indicator of poverty -- is 22 percent higher in Lucas County than in Ohio as a whole.

Local communities should look to develop countywide strategies to address these issues, rather than pursue political efforts to balkanize the county further.

Ohio's mediocre performance in the Kids Count rankings makes clear that the state is not doing enough to prepare all of its children for adult careers and citizenship. If too many of our children get left behind, so will the economy and job-creating capacity of our state.

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