Guest writer

OPINION | RICH HUDDLESTON: Invest in our kids

Give children chance to thrive

We know every child needs food, health care, safe and stable housing, and access to education to thrive. Today the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the "2021 KIDS COUNT® Data Book," an influential report that assesses child well-being across the 50 states each year. The data show the needs of many of Arkansas' children are not met.

The "Data Book" includes 16 indicators to rank each state across four areas: health, education, economic well-being, and family and community context. Data in the 2021 report are from 2019, so they reflect conditions for children immediately before the covid-19 pandemic.

At first glance, the report contains good news for Arkansas, as our state ranking improved from 40th to 39th this year. A deeper dive, though, paints a picture that threatens to undermine future progress in improving outcomes for Arkansas' children because, while Arkansas' state rank improved, we remain in the bottom third of all states overall, and we're in the bottom 10 in the areas of health and education.

Access to health care is critical for the healthy development of children. But after years of steady progress in coverage, there has been a major rise in the number of uninsured children in Arkansas over the past several years.

There were approximately 43,000 uninsured children in Arkansas in 2019, up from 30,000 in 2016. That's a 43.3 percent increase--one of the largest in the nation.

And despite the state's relatively good unemployment figures in the years before the pandemic, Arkansas' child poverty rate remains stubbornly high. In 2019 more than 151,000 children (22 percent) continued to live in poverty, placing us 46th in the nation.

The research on child poverty is clear. Children who live in poverty face more obstacles to success than children whose needs are met.

Current and historical policies at all levels of government, like inequitable criminal-justice, housing, and health-care systems, have held back the economic and social progress of Arkansans of color. Child poverty is therefore experienced unevenly by race: 39 percent of Black or African American kids and 27 percent of Hispanic or Latino kids in Arkansas live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of non-Hispanic white children.

The coronavirus crisis has shocked the economy, forced shifts to remote learning and work, and exposed widening racial and economic disparities already endemic to American life. It's all but guaranteed that the covid-19 pandemic has deepened Arkansas' child poverty, especially in communities that were hardest hit, including Black, Latino, and Marshallese families.

As recently as last month, U.S. Census Bureau PULSE data show more than 30 percent of Arkansans are still having difficulty covering usual household expenses. And almost a third of renters are unsure if they'll be able to afford rent next month. We know economic insecurity like this makes it harder for kids to reach their full potential.

Our policymakers have a responsibility to make smart and fair choices that help children and families. The historic federal legislation passed over the past year makes clear that our government can invest in kids, families, and communities to improve living standards and give children the chance to thrive.

Arkansas has a billion-dollar budget surplus, a result of overly conservative budgeting in the past that led to major underfunding of key investments in our children. Thanks to the infusion of federal resources, Arkansas lawmakers can be deliberate and bold in seeking policy solutions to not only rebuild what was lost, but to reimagine how to support and protect our state's children.

Prime examples include early childhood development, juvenile justice, after-school and summer programs, and a state earned income tax credit for struggling working families.

Yet rather than investing in programs, the state Legislature wants to come back this fall to cut state revenue by giving tax cuts to the state's wealthiest taxpayers, who are already benefiting generously from 2017 federal tax cuts. The Legislature should instead do what research tells us would be in the interest of everyday Arkansans.

Finally, at the federal level, we need to encourage policymakers to make the temporary expansion in the child tax credit permanent. This would be the single biggest effort to cut child poverty and improve outcomes for Arkansas' children.

Almost 94 percent of Arkansas' children (660,000) would benefit. The credit has long had bipartisan support, so lawmakers should find common cause to ensure the largest one-year drop ever in child poverty isn't followed by the largest-ever surge.

If we are serious about improving the well-being of Arkansas' children, we must commit to doing what data and research says would improve lives of every Arkansas child, regardless of how much their family makes, where they live, or their race or ethnicity.

Rich Huddleston is the executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.