Erica Nelson, Kids Count and Race to Equity project director at Kids Forward, speaks at the Meadowridge Library in 2017.

Every year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation releases a report ranking states on child well-being. This year, Wisconsin ranked 13th. Last year it ranked 12th and the year before that, it also ranked 12th.

There’s a temptation to think that these consistent rankings are “good enough” for Wisconsin’s children, said Erica Nelson, Kids Count and Race to Equity project director at Kids Forward. But she warned against complacency.

“I sincerely believe we can do better, and particularly need to do better for families and children of color in this state,” she said.

The 2019 Kids Count Data Book released Monday ranks states on overall child well-being based on performance in four categories: economic well-being, family and community, education and health.

Over the last 10 years, Wisconsin has seen improvement in some of the indicators tracked by the Kids Count report, including lower teen birth rates, and lower percentages of children in families burdened by housing costs and in families where no parent has full-time, secure employment.

And compared to other states, Wisconsin was ranked higher in the economic well-being and health categories this year than last year.

But in some areas, the state is “kind of at a standstill,” Nelson said, especially when it comes to racial disparities.

The percentage of children in Wisconsin without health insurance was 5% in 2010 and 4% in 2017, the report says. Kids Forward claimed other states that have expanded Medicaid have “surpassed Wisconsin by providing a stronger, healthier start for their youth.”

“We’re remaining steady with health insurance, but we could do a lot better,” Nelson said.

Reading and math proficiency scores also haven’t changed much: 67% percent of fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2009, and 65% were not proficient in 2017. The percentage of eighth-graders not proficient in math was 61% in both 2009 and 2017.

The percentage of low birthweight babies born in the state was 7% in 2010 and slightly worse by 2017, at 7.7%. That’s been a concern in Dane County, and recently, the local Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness led a nine-month community engagement campaign to find solutions to the frequency of babies born at low birth weights, asking African-American women in-depth questions about their lived experiences.

Nelson said it’s crucial to view the Kids Count data through a racial equity lens. As in previous years, Wisconsin’s overall rankings don’t reflect the stubbornly persistent disparities faced by children of color in Wisconsin.

“When these same child well-being indicators are disaggregated by race and ethnicity, it paints an even more shameful picture of the state of Wisconsin,” a statement from Kids Forward says.

Disparities include:

  • 33% of African-American students, 21% of Native American students and 20% of Latino students didn’t graduate on time in the 2016-2017 school year, compared to just 7% of white students
  • Child poverty rates are four times higher for African-American children than white children, and three times higher for Latino children than white children
  • Over half of African-American kids and over a third of Latino kids in Wisconsin live in housing cost-burdened households, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

“It continues to beg the question about how are we going to target our efforts and our policies to address what is obviously systemic and structural impediments,” Nelson said.

In response to the report, Kids Forward recommended expanding Medicaid and supporting the Healthy Women, Healthy Babies initiative meant to reduce health disparities and infant mortality rates and expand access to health care like post-partum coverage. Both moves were proposed by Gov. Tony Evers, but the legislature's budget committee nixed Medicaid expansion and much of the Healthy Women, Healthy Babies plan. Overall, the committee voted to increase state health spending by $588 million.

Kids Forward also advocated for increasing the state Earned Income Tax Credit and funding for education, including special education services, mental health, school safety and bilingual services.

When looking for solutions to these disparities, Nelson said it’s also important to reach out to the communities most affected.

“We need to honor the knowledge and expertise that’s on the ground,” she said.

Kids Forward urged action on the state’s racial disparities, noting that between 1990 and 2017, the state’s percentage of kids of color increased from 13.5% to 27.4%.

“Every Wisconsin child is a contributor to the future of Wisconsin,” the statement from Kids Forward said. “If we continue to allow the well-being of our children to stall — or worse yet, decline — we will cede our future to other states.”

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