In January, Charnisha Cleary and her six children were homeless, bouncing between shelters and relatives' houses, seeking their former stability.
Last week, Cleary's youngest son, Ethan, took his first steps while his family was living in their new North Little Rock home.
Cleary, 33, became homeless in January after she fell behind on bills and got evicted. She said she had two other people staying in the house at the time, but when it came time to pay bills, they "skipped out."
"It is what it is," she said. "You have to pick up from there and move on."
So she loaded her six children -- ages 12, 11, 8, 7, 5 and 1 -- into the family car, put as many belongings as she could fit into a storage unit and went to stay with her sister. Cleary's income comes from disability checks.
Soon after, while searching the Internet for resources, she found Family Promise of Pulaski County. The organization provides homeless families with shelter and helps them achieve financial independence. It's a local branch of a national group.
After a few months with Family Promise, Cleary was able to find a four-bedroom home to rent in North Little Rock and got her family back on its feet.
Things are looking up economically in the state for families like Cleary's, according to the annual Kids Count, an annual ranking of the states by the Annie E. Casey Foundation based on the well-being of children. The foundation works to improve the futures of at-risk children, and it creates the annual report with the help of state-level groups like Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
Arkansas is ranked 40th in this year's report, based on data from 2017. In last year's report, the state was ranked 41st.
New Hampshire is first and New Mexico is last, the same as last year.
The report is based on four major categories -- economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Within the four categories, there are 16 total indicators.
Arkansas saw the largest growth in economic well-being; its ranking moved from 44th to 36th. Experts and service providers say there are still areas where Arkansas needs improvement, notably in health, education and housing costs.
"While the report contains some good news for Arkansas' children, it also contains some major trouble spots," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
Leslie Boissiere, the vice president for external affairs at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said the economic well-being of children is improving nationally and that she's hopeful that some national discussions will continue to improve financial outcomes.
"There are some favorable discussions about things such as family leave," she said. "We think that's quite important."
Boissiere added that earned income tax credits have shown to be effective in lifting families out of poverty. The federal program allows low- to moderate-income working people to receive tax refunds.
Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., have earned income tax credits. A married couple that makes up to $52,493 and has two children could receive up to $5,828 in tax credit under the federal program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Former state House Democratic leader Charles Blake of Little Rock said in January that House Democrats wanted to pass earned income tax credit legislation, but the measure didn't gain approval. Former Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, proposed similar legislation in 2017 to provide relief for the lower-third income bracket, but the bill failed.
A study from Arkansas Advocates published last year suggested implementing an earned income tax credit to help lift black men and boys out of poverty. The study examined barriers black males face that white males do not.
Bruno Showers, an Arkansas Advocates senior policy analyst, said that while Arkansas is improving its poverty rate, he hopes to see more growth in the state and hopes that child poverty will decrease more quickly.
The Kids Count this year also notes that the number of children in the United States has grown substantially since the study began 30 years ago. The number of children peaked in 2009 at 74.1 million and has declined slightly since then to about 73.7 million in 2017.
In 1990, the study says, Arkansas had 620,993 kids, and the number had risen to 705,540 by 2017.
"We want more growth, but we need to manage that growth in a healthy way," Showers said.
Huddleston said an area of concern in the study was that for the first time in about two decades, the number of uninsured children in the state has increased.
"We cannot afford to go backwards in the two decades of progress our state has made in insuring children," Huddleston said.
The number of children without health insurance increased by about 7,000 -- from 26,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017, according to the Kids Count data.
Huddleston said policy experts at Arkansas Advocates plan to examine this trend in the coming weeks by looking at insurance application processes and other factors.
"We don't know why more kids are uninsured, but it's something that we need to look into," he said.
Amy Webb, a spokesman at the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said via email that the improvement in economic conditions for kids could mean that some of them aren't eligible for Medicaid or ARKids First anymore.
"Since ARKids eligibility is based on income, that boost in economic status means that many kids will no longer be eligible for ARKids. Our hope is that the parents access health insurance through an employer or the market place," Webb said.
The department is working to increase outreach and education that focuses on checkups, vaccinations and safety. It's also working to hand out "new mom" kits at hospitals in about 12 counties that include information on childhood health and safety, she said.
The Kids Count study shows that Arkansas has the highest rate of teens giving birth at 33 per 1,000. Arkansas has had the highest rate for many years.
Webb said the department was "excited to see that Arkansas has high national rankings" in pre-kindergarten education. Just over half of preschool-aged kids in the state are getting preschool education, the Kids Count shows.
Cynthia Ramey, the executive director for Family Promise, said most families she sees don't have trouble finding good education for their older children, but that preschool and day care can be difficult.
Her organization provides transportation to make sure kids get to school on time, she said.
Nearly 70% of Arkansas fourth-graders are not reading at grade level, and about 75% of eighth-graders are not proficient in math, according to the Kids Count study.
"This is a national problem that we are facing," said Ginny Blankenship, education director for Arkansas Advocates.
Nationally, about 65% of fourth-graders don't read at grade level and 67% of eighth-graders aren't proficient in math, according to the study.
Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association, praised the Every Student Succeeds Act, which President Barack Obama signed at the end of 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind Act.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states more flexibility in educating children.
Koehler said in a written statement that she's hopeful Arkansas' ESSA plan will allow teachers to more accurately track student growth and help them do well.
"The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a welcome change from the one-size-fits-all accountability requirements of the failed No Child Left Behind law," Koehler said. "Importantly, ESSA allows states to take charge of educational accountability by developing a state-specific plan to implement multiple measures of accountability. This shift from the federal to the states allows educators to drive the implementation of this new law."
Boissiere said schools need more equity in funding in order for all students to be successful.
"If you look at the quality of schools, it is largely determined by ZIP code," she said. "We all believe that all children should have brighter futures."
While the number of Arkansas children living in households with a high cost burden has decreased -- from 180,000 in 2016 to 168,000 in 2017 -- Ramey said it's challenging to find housing that families leaving homelessness can afford, especially if they want to move to a "good neighborhood."
Nationally, about 1 in 3 children live in households where their caretakers spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent, according to the study.
Ramey said that in addition to high housing costs, it can be difficult for parents to find jobs that allow them to earn a living wage.
"The jobs are there; the living wage is not," she said.
In November, Arkansas voters approved an increase in the minimum wage, which was at $8.50 at the time. In January, the wage increased to $9.25, and by 2021, the minimum wage will be $11.
Cleary said finding housing and the rental assistance she needed to get her started was the hardest part of becoming independent. She no longer receives rental assistance.
She said her rental credit history was damaged when she was evicted. And although she's not sure whether it played a factor, she said she's previously encountered landlords who didn't want to rent to her because she has six kids.
"In the past, that's been a question," she said.
She's still in communication with Family Promise. Her family went to see Disney on Ice with Family Promise in April, she said. She leaned over to pick up Ethan, drooling and smiling with a toy train in his hand.
He gurgled, smiling and lifting the toy over his head.
His mother smiled back and glanced at the train.
"Can I go for a ride? You want to take me to the store?" she asked, pointing to the train before lifting the baby onto her hip to get ready to head to the car.
A Section on 06/17/2019
Print Headline: State ranked No. 40 on kids' well-being