OPINION | RICH HUDDLESTON: Try something else

Make state better place to be a kid

Today the Annie E. Casey Foundation releases its 2022 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, a 50-state report on children and families. Based on the latest data, Arkansas ranks 43rd in overall child well-being.

You would think, with the Arkansas Legislature convening into special session and the 2023 session around the corner, lawmakers would be scrambling to improve the lives of children and families and pull Arkansas out of the bottom 10. Spoiler: They're planning tax cuts instead.

More than one in five of Arkansas' children (22 percent) live in poverty. This should be unacceptable to every Arkansan, given our collective desire to be a state where every child is thriving. That goal is threatened by the negative effects child poverty has on lifelong health, brain development, school performance, and future employment and earnings as adults.

Arkansas' BIPOC children (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) have significantly higher poverty rates than white children. The racist and discriminatory effects of current and historical national and state policies--such as redlining, the mass incarceration of Black men, unequal health access, and the pervasive effects of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws--undermine BIPOC families' ability to avoid poverty and succeed.

Instead of working to ensure every child, no matter their race, ethnicity or ZIP code, has the chance to be healthy and reach their full potential in Arkansas, the governor and some in the state Legislature want to accelerate income-tax cuts.

Their proposed plan will cost the state $750 million more over the next few years than letting the tax cuts passed in 2021 phase in as scheduled. The 60 percent of taxpayers making less than $40,000 will see about 15 percent of the benefits--mostly from a one-time tax credit for 2022. The wealthiest Arkansans and corporations will reap the benefits, costing the state more than $500 million every year.

It's worth noting: The budget surplus being used to justify the huge tax cuts is illusory. As several Arkansas Republican leaders acknowledged, the state budget is being propped up by one-time federal spending passed to help states during the covid-19 pandemic. The surplus is also the result of years of the Legislature starving the state budget of the revenue needed to invest in programs and services that could benefit all Arkansans.

And there are new challenges demanding attention, including an emerging mental health crisis among our youth. Nationally, more children experienced anxiety or depression in the first year of the pandemic than before. Arkansas' data are especially bleak, with a 67 percent increase between 2019 and 2020, the third highest increase of all states.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and the enactment of Arkansas' "trigger" laws have all but banned abortion access in a state tied for the highest teen birth rate in the nation. We can expect to see increases in child poverty; poorer maternal and mental health; and greater demands on our child welfare system, already stretched to the breaking point because of covid.

If we want different outcomes for children and families, we must go in a different direction. Here are some targeted investments we suggest:

• Give Arkansas' teachers a raise.

• Allow children in families with incomes below the poverty line to keep their ARKids First health insurance for a full year, even if a temporary income change puts them over eligibility.

• Extend postpartum coverage for new mothers in Medicaid from the current two months to 12 months.

• Allow Medicaid to approve pregnant women for coverage quickly based on their income.

• Expand and improve access to mental health services for children.

• Work with the private sector to support paid family leave, which helps families economically, supports the workplace, and promotes healthy child development.

• Require scientifically based sex education in schools, and make it easier for Arkansans, including teens, to obtain long-acting reversible contraception.

• Change state-level policies to make it easier for Arkansas' families with low incomes to obtain food and cash assistance.

We can't let the lack of political will keep us from allowing all Arkansans to succeed. Our policymakers must resist the urge to pass tax cuts for the wealthy and instead make common-sense choices to move us forward.

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

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