But do Arkansas kids really count? The numbers aren't convincing.

Arkansas isn’t a topnotch state for any children to thrive, but it’s significantly tougher for children of color.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Databook is out today. Taking into account the wellbeing of children in four areas — health, education, economics and family and community — this  year’s book ranks Arkansas at 39 out of the 50 states, up from 40th last year. Not the worst, right?

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But dig into the data and you’ll find some worrisome news, especially for children who aren’t white. Arkansas is not kind to them. Nor do we take very good care of our teenage girls. Arkansas ranked 50th out of 50 for teen pregnancy for the sixth year in a row. 

“It is important to note that while we did go up in one rank overall last year, the data, when disaggregated, tells a much different story for Black and brown children,” said Maricella Garcia, race equity director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a nonprofit working to institute policies that improve child wellbeing in our state. “Children of color are faring far worse than their white counterparts.”

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For example, 39% of Black children and 27% of Hispanic children in Arkansas live in poverty, while only 16 percent of their white counterparts live in poverty. And poverty is the reason Arkansas continues to lag behind in other metrics, said Bruno Showers, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates.

Out of the 50 states, Arkansas ranked 41 in child health, 35 in education, 34 in economic wellbeing and 42 in strength of family and community.

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The paths we need to take to make life better for Arkansas children are clear. Investing more in early childhood education, a proven strategy to improve academic achievement, would boost our education ranking. But that would take funding. “Our progress has really stalled due to a decade of nearly flat funding for early childhood,” said Rich Huddleston, Arkansas Advocates executive director.

And Arkansas’s ranking on the number of children without insurance slipped from 24 to 29. 

The information released today is based on 2019 data, the latest available, so it doesn’t reflect the hits young people took during the pandemic. 

Are there any new laws from the 2021 legislative session to help Arkansas children move ahead on any of these key indicators? Not much. A boost in teacher pay will help, and there’s hope that more funding will be forthcoming for children’s programs outside of school. But the supermajority Republican legislature also chipped away at public education funding by creating a new $2 million voucher program for private schools. Lawmakers rejected a bill that would end corporal punishment, and rejected another that would promote in-school alternatives to the expulsions and suspensions that lead to learning loss and can push students to drop out entirely.

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The looming tax cuts will be a step in the wrong direction. “I’m especially worried about the proposal to cut top tax rates,” Showers said. “That certainly doesn’t help anyone we’re talking about. It doesn’t help children in poverty. It’s something that largely benefits the very wealthy who have already benefited from tax cuts.”

What about that record-breaking billion dollar state surplus, though? The one Governor Hutchinson keeps pointing to as the reason to cut income taxes? Garcia asks Arkansans to reframe the issue. 

“The idea that this surplus exists is not real,” she said, because so many programs that could improve children’s wellbeing, things like SNAP benefits and summer and after school programs, are woefully underfunded. “We place limits to make sure people in poverty can’t access services,” she said.  

There’s some hope, however, that funding for summer and after school programs will come through when the legislature reconvenes this fall.

“We want all kids to thrive and succeed and our communities to thrive,” Huddleston said. “We have to make some strategic policy decisions now to make that happen.”