As right-wing politicians hustle to deliver tax cuts to the state's wealthiest residents, life gets worse for Arkansas children.

A report card for child well-being across the country came out today, and Arkansas is at the bottom of the class. Our state ranks 43rd out of 50, a downhill slide from the number 36 spot last time.

Jesus Christ, people. Is this really the best we can do?

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The annual Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation gauges child well-being based on 16 indicators that measure health, education, economic well-being and family and community support. A respected measure of progress and pitfalls for children across the nation, the report proves Arkansas children are suffering.

Arkansas ranks 43 out of 50 overall, down from 39 in the 2021 report.

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“The report clearly shows that Arkansas is a harder place for a child to live and thrive than almost anywhere else in the country,” Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Executive Director Rich Huddleston said.

The COVID-19 pandemic really did a number on Arkansas youth, leaving them fatter, sadder and at greater risk for death. Rates of anxiety and depression went way up as young people isolated at home, missing out on months of socialization and companionship. Obesity rates went up during the pandemic, too.

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Per a press release from Arkansas Advocates:

Arkansas’s child well-being outcomes are worse than the national average in 11 out of 16 indicators. And while Arkansas’s outcomes have generally improved over time, we are losing ground in preschool enrollment; our low birth weight babies rate has worsened far faster than the national rate; and we’re seeing a concerning increase in child and teen deaths and teen obesity rates.

While Arkansas’s overall grade for children’s opportunity and quality of life fell, in one key area Arkansas maintained its rank. When it comes to teen pregnancy, nobody can beat us.

“We’re consistently in last place there and have been for a decade,” Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families Northwest Arkansas Director Laura Kellams said. “Our rank here is 49th, but don’t let that confuse you. We’re still in last place because we tied with Mississippi.”

The fixes to keep teenagers from having babies are no mystery. But so far, Arkansans have been more than willing to watch teens become parents rather than talk to them about S-E-X.

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“States who do best in this area have a few things in common,” Kellams said. They offer comprehensive, science-based sex ed in schools, and teens have much better access to contraception. By contrast, in Arkansas we cling to pushing abstinence, which obviously doesn’t work at all but lets the holy rollers feel superior, I guess.

When you’re already in last place there’s no lower place to go, but Arkansas’s new complete ban on abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, is unlikely to help.

These pathetic showings are a result of state law and policy that our elected officials could fix as early as this week, when they head into a special session Tuesday. But instead of considering teacher pay raises to boost morale and momentum in Arkansas public schools, lawmakers are expected to cut taxes for the state’s wealthiest citizens instead. The only funding they’re likely to send to schools will be for guns, security officers and other measures unproven to make schools safer, but absolutely proven to fan the brinkmanship that keeps the firearms industry in the black while the blood pours from our ever-worsening rates of gun violence.

Huddleston says as much, but with more grace:

“Lack of political will and lack of targeted investments in our children keeps Arkansas near the bottom of the states. While Arkansas’s lawmakers this week begin debating giving generous tax cuts to the wealthiest Arkansans, we’ve got more children living in poverty, more students lacking proficiency in reading and math, and more teens giving birth than in most other states.”

Arkansas youth have the third-highest rates of anxiety and depression in the country, with high numbers of suicide attempts, especially among students of color.

And legislators’ campaign against gay and transgender youth seems to be hitting its mark. Per Arkansas Advocates’ press release, “many LGBTQ young people are encountering challenges as they seek mental health support. Among heterosexual high school students of all races and ethnicities, 6% attempted suicide; the share was 23% for gay, lesbian or bisexual students.”

None of this misery and gloom is inevitable. Arkansas lawmakers can turn the ship around this week if they decide to ditch tax cuts for the wealthy to save the lives and health of our state’s children, instead.

Arkansas Advocates offers these solutions to give our children the opportunities they deserve:

  • Extend postpartum coverage for new mothers in Medicaid. Right now, women insured under pregnancy Medicaid lose their coverage 60 days after delivery. We should expand that to 12 months, as 34 states and the District of Columbia have done or are in the process of implementing.

  • Provide presumptive Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women, allowing them to be approved for Medicaid coverage quickly based on their income level.

  • Allow children and babies in the lowest-income families to keep their ARKids First health insurance for a full year of continuous coverage, rather than kicking them off their insurance when their family incomes fluctuate month-to-month.

  • Change the state-level policies that unnecessarily make it more difficult for Arkansas families to obtain SNAP benefits and to get enrolled in the WIC program – the nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children.

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

  • Overhaul harsh policies in the state’s cash assistance program, which is called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. We need to 1) eliminate the family cap now that parents have fewer family planning options and 2) increase the monthly benefit level, which is $203 for a family of three.

The Casey Foundation calls for lawmakers to heed the surgeon general’s warning and respond by developing programs and policies to ease mental health burdens on children and their families. They urge policymakers to:

  • Prioritize meeting kids’ basic needs. Youth who grow up in poverty are two to three times more likely to develop mental health conditions than their peers. Children need a solid foundation of nutritious food, stable housing and safe neighborhoods — and their families need financial stability — to foster positive mental health and wellness.

  • Ensure every child has access to the mental health care they need, when and where they need it. Schools should increase the presence of social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals on staff and strive to meet the 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors recommended by the American School Counselor Association, and they can work with local health care providers and local and state governments to make additional federal resources available and coordinate treatment.

  • Bolster mental health care that takes into account young people’s experiences and identities. It should be trauma-informed — designed to promote a child’s healing and emotional security — and culturally relevant to the child’s life. It should be informed by the latest evidence and research and should be geared toward early intervention, which can be especially important in the absence of a formal diagnosis of mental illness.

You can read the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book report in full here.