Arkansas Advocate

Arkansas children continue to fare poorly, according to the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book.

The experience of growing up in Arkansas has worsened in most areas of child well-being, according to the latest Annie E. Casey Foundation report.

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The group’s latest KIDS COUNT Data Book, released Monday, shows 2022 was the deadliest year on record for child deaths in Arkansas. Child poverty and low educational performance persisted.

The report uses information from 2022 to analyze nationwide data from 16 indicators in four domains: family and community, education, health and economics. The report then ranks states by overall child well-being. Arkansas’ position at 45th is down two slots from its ranking the last two years.

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Arkansas has ranked as one of the country’s 10 worst states for overall child well-being nine times in the last decade. The only year it didn’t rank in the bottom 40, it came in at 39.

The recent drop in rankings results from a combination of Arkansas’ indicators worsening and other states improving at a quicker rate, leaving the Natural State to fall farther behind, said Pete Gess, economic policy director at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF).

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AACF is a member of the KIDS COUNT network, and staff provided a report preview last week and offered policy solutions. Executive Director Keesa Smith spoke to the connectedness between the indicators.

“If you start with the big piece of data, which is the number of children living in poverty, that speaks to a situation already that families are trying to overcome that will lead to additional problems,” Smith said.

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The ability to secure affordable housing, purchase healthy food and access transportation for well-paying jobs all start with the state’s poverty level, Smith said.

By the report’s count, approximately 150,000 of Arkansas’ 683,000 children were living in poverty in 2022. While the percentage of children in poverty, 22%, went unchanged this year, state officials have the ability to improve that number, Gess said.

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“We could cut childhood poverty in half … simply if we had spent less than what we have given away in tax cuts over the past decade,” he said. “Those tax cuts, of course, have gone mostly to the wealthy. If we had used that and targeted it at child tax credits, most children would be lifted out of poverty in Arkansas.”

Report highlights

Arkansas performed worst when it came to health, and one standout statistic came from the child and teen death rate.

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From 2019 to 2022, the rate at which children and teenagers died in Arkansas increased by 26%. At 44 deaths per 100,000 children and teens in 2022, Arkansas’ rate was the third-highest in the country, and well above the national average of 30 deaths, according to the report.

It was the deadliest year for Arkansas kids on record, said Camille Richoux, AACF’s health policy director.

The state data isn’t broken out into cause of death, but firearm-related deaths have become the leading cause of death among U.S. teens in recent years. Deaths from accidents such as car crashes account for most child deaths.

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Richoux referenced other research that suggested Arkansas had one of the highest firearm injury rates as well. She said children and teens often have easy access to unsecure firearms and aren’t safely taught how to handle them.

Six percent of children in Arkansas were without health care in 2022, according to the report. This data doesn’t include children who were disenrolled from Medicaid during the state’s “unwinding process,” which started in April 2023.

Richoux said there is more work to be done than what the latest report shows as one in five children in Arkansas recently lost access to Medicaid.

The teen birth rate in Arkansas decreased 17% from 2019 to 2022, but the state’s rate of 25 births per 1,000 females remained one of the highest in the nation. In combination with low-birth weights, these statistics were troubling for AACF staff when considering Arkansas’ high maternity and infant mortality rates.

“This is a really important indicator, not only for those young people who are becoming parents before they plan to, but also for their young children who are so much more likely to live in poverty,” said Laura Kellams, AACF’s Northwest Arkansas director.

Arkansas teens aren’t necessarily more sexually active than teens in other states, Kellams said. The difference in Arkansas is the lack of education they receive about safe sex and their ability to access contraceptives.

A post-pandemic education analysis

The latest national report marked the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of some sense of normalcy. The data highlights how the pandemic affected children and families, specifically related to education and learning loss.

Arkansas’s education performance ranked 36th nationwide, one position higher than in the last report, and data showed that students struggled to keep up with standardized testing measures.

From 2019 to 2022, the percent of Arkansas eighth graders who scored below proficient in math  increased by 11% to 81%, ranking the state 43rd in the country. Most fourth graders, 70%, scored below a proficient reading level in 2022, a slight increase from pre-pandemic numbers.

Olivia Gardner, AACF’s education policy director, noted that while standardized tests are a useful tool when marking achievement, they’re not perfect measurements.

“We have research that shows more affluent students perform better than low-income students because [low-income students] lack resources,” Gardner said.

Pre-K attendance also decreased from 2019 to 2022, according to the report. Whereas half of children ages 3 and 4 were previously not attending preschool, that percentage has risen to 57%.

To improve students’ classroom experience, AACF staff recommended universal low- or no-cost meals, a reliable internet connection, a place to study or spend time with friends, and access to high-quality teachers and counselors. AACF also suggested an expansion of intensive, in-person tutoring and policy measures that invest in community schools.

Of the 16 measured indicators, Arkansas’ outcomes were worse than the national average in 13.

All members of AACF’s staff noted it is necessary for state officials to make intentional investments that will act as preventative measures when it comes to child well-being.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.