AUSTIN, Texas -- This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 2018 Kids Count data book, ranking Texas as one of the ten worst states in the county for overall child wellbeing. Texas came in at number 43. In Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau sat down with Kristie Tingle, a Research Analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities to dig into the numbers and what they mean.
Ashley Goudeau: "Let's start by talking a little bit about the Kid's Count report. How exactly is it formulated what data do they use, what methodology?"
Kristie Tingle: "Sure, so every year the Annie E. Casey Foundation puts together this Kids Count report. And they look at child well-being in four core areas; those are education, economic wellbeing, health and family and community. In each of those domains they look at four different indicators and all those indicators together result in an overall ranking and a ranking within domain. So what we found this year is that Texas ranks 43rd in the U.S. in child wellbeing."
Goudeau: "Compared to previous years, where has Texas ranked? Did we fall? Did we stay about the same?"
Tingle: "I would say about the same. For the past few years we've kind of been in the bottom 10 states, it's been pretty consistent. So there's nothing new, nothing surprising this year, but I think that speaks volumes as well."
Goudeau: "And so let's talk about each of those data points that they look at. Let's start with education. Texas is not doing well according to this report."
Tingle: "Not really. So what we're seeing is that a majority of 4th graders are not proficient in reading and a majority of 8th graders are not proficient in math in Texas. That's a big problem because these kids are going to be running our state soon. We need to make sure that they're ready for higher education and these numbers are showing that they're just not."
Goudeau: "One of the things that is positive though is our graduation rates have increased in the state."
Tingle: "They have! And actually, Texas's on-time graduation rate is higher than the US average, so that's some good news. But overall, kids in Texas are still lagging behind in education."
Goudeau: "Is it just that they're lagging behind early on, do they catch up later?"
Tingle: "That's a great question, You know I'm not sure that they really catch up entirely later. This report just kind of looks at a selection of indicators. But we also look at things like, how many kids are enrolled in Pre-K. In Texas, it's not as many as other states across the country."
Goudeau: "And part of that is because it's not always funded?"
Tingle: "Exactly, and that's why school finance is so important and making sure that we actually are funding quality, full-day Pre-K programs that kids can go learn how to write their names. Actually, while I was on my way over here my Lyft driver was telling me that she used to be a Pre-K teacher and she knew that her kids were learning how to spell their names. And then when they hit kindergarten some of their classmates don't know anything. They don't know how to recognize the first letter of their name. And that creates a lot of challenges going on for those kids. They're already starting behind. So the more Texas can do to support early education the better our state's going to be."
Goudeau: "Let's talk a little bit about healthcare. It really comes as no surprise that Texas is toward the bottom when we're looking at health care."
Tingle: "Not at all. So, one of the, well I will say that there is some positive news in healthcare though. I don't wanna make it all sound too bad. So we have seen a big improvement in child-health insurance rates in Texas. That's been true around the country. We've seen that improvement since 2010, it's largely due to the implementation of the affordable care act. But, looking forward, Texas still has a higher child uninsured rate than other states. And with potential threats to the Affordable Care Act, potential threats to the Children's Health Insurance Program, we're maybe not looking at even maintaining the gains we've seen. Additionally, I would add that when parents are insured their children are much more likely to be insured as well. So when we also have a large adult population in Texas that's uninsured it's not helping their kids."
Goudeau: "Does Texas rank lower though because our population is so large and we do have children who maybe here are undocumented?"
Tingle: "I don't think that's driving these numbers. So for one thing, undocumented children may or may not be fully showing up in this data due to the way it's collected. Also, a lot of our kids In immigrant families here in Texas are U.S. citizens themselves even if they have a family member who's undocumented. And then, you know, the size of Texas is a big challenge. Kind of touching on the education point, one in ten school children in the U.S. lives in Texas. So we have a lot of the country's children. But, other states are still doing better. And I would just add that, kind of the negative things that we're seeing in the rankings, in these numbers, those are derived not from population size but from policy choices. We can make policy choices that adapt to the state's large number of children, or 7.2 million children. All we have to do is show up at the legislature, look in our communities and say 'what can we do?'"
Goudeau: "Alright, let's talk economics. Talk to us about what the report found there."
Tingle: "Basically too many Texas children are living in poverty. We have 1.6 million Texas children that are living below the poverty line and even for children who are above the poverty line, their families may not really be making enough to get by. The poverty line, right now, for example, is about $24,500 for a family of four. So you can imagine even here in Austin that's not a lot to get by on when you've got two parents, two kids. So one of the other issues that we look at in economic well-being is if kids are living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and we have a lot of kids in Texas that are in these neighborhoods, I think its 27 percent of our children, are living in these neighbors where their census tract is in poverty on average. And what that means, is that due to the way our school finance system works, they are more likely to not have as much school funding at their schools, they're not likely to have as many community resources, things like that. So all of these supports that kids in areas with less poverty see, these kids might not be getting."
Goudeau: "The last factor, overall community and family well being, how is that really judged?"
Tingle: "That's a good question, so it's judged by some things like whether parents have a high school diploma or not. And that area, the family and community domain, is actually one of the places where Texas is the farthest behind. We're ranked 47th. We have a lot of kids who are in families where at least one of their parents doesn't have a high school diploma. And that ranking is actually also driven by the neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. So that's one of the things that we're seeing reflected in that number."
Goudeau: "There seems to be a juxtaposition then right? We have all these children whose parents don't have high school diplomas and yet our on-time graduation rates are increasing and better than the national average."
Tingle: "That's a great question. I think that speaks to the fact that no one data point can tell the whole story. We see different things going on in different places, different policy choices impacting different outcomes. And that's why it's important to try to look at a holistic view and this is one of the ways of doing that."
Goudeau: "What we can do to change some of these numbers. You guys at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, working on some of those things, what would you like to see to combat some of this?"
Tingle: "Well, I hate to kind of rain on the parade but one of the things we're worried about looking towards the future actually is the 2020 census. So one of the key ways to improve some of these metrics is through either funding for programs, programs like Head Start, programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program, like Medicaid. Funding for those sort of things comes through or it comes out of numbers from the Census Bureau that are gathered in the decennial census. One of the things that we're really worried about though is that looking to 2020, there's a high chance of having an undercount especially of young children in Texas. So advocates are looking toward the census and saying, well what if everyone's not counted? If everyone in Texas who lives here is not counted, that could affect our representation that could affect the money that's coming through these programs. And it also affects our businesses and our communities ability to plan. So that kind of infrastructure of support really depends on data in a lot of ways. And what we're worried about is that maybe that account isn't going to accurate and that could push these rankings for Texas kids even lower if they're not getting the funding that they deserve."
Goudeau: "So let's talk about, for our viewers who don't know, tell us why there is this fear that people are going to be undercounted."
Tingle: "Sure, well there are a lot of different reasons. So its very hard to count everyone in the country. And in Texas we're especially worried because we've traditionally had a lot of populations in Texas that are hard to count. Those include young children, we have a very high number of young children and one of the reasons is that children themselves can't fill out a census form, they rely on parents to do it for them. Another recent issue that's come up is the addition to the citizenship question to the census. That's something that in the current political climate, advocates are very worried that it's going to drive down participation. But the fact is, everyone who is living in Texas, regardless of citizenship status, is supposed to be counted in the census. Our representatives are supposed to represent everyone who lives here, not just citizens, not just adults, so making sure that everyone really gets counted is just going to be critical."
Goudeau: "So some of those funding numbers have to do with the federal level, what about statewide? What things do you think can be done to try to turn the tide on these numbers?"
Tingle: "Sure, well the good news is there are a lot of things that can be done. In the education sphere, absolutely remodeling our school finance system to make it more equitable would be a big step in the right direction. One of the issues we see is that in schools that have, that in kind of areas with more poverty, they don't have as much funding as other schools and that's something that the state can fix. There's also the idea of making Pre-K full day more accessible. That's one of the things I mentioned earlier with my Lyft driver. She was talking about her sister even had a child who was in half day Pre-K but then that makes it really hard to work and she said the child was just kind of going, having breakfast, doing a little bit of learning, having lunch and then going home. But that's missing out on a whole half day that that child could be growing and developing and learning how to learn so that they're prepared for kindergarten. In the health sphere, really defending against these attacks on Children's Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act is huge. The more people that we can make sure are insured in Texas, not only the healthier are our kids going to be, but its going to protect their families financially. Because if you have a big surprise medical bill that could ruin a families year, it could make it impossible for them to get by or pay their rent. So that's a really important area for family economic security as well."
Goudeau: "It's easy to say that we should fix these funding gaps we should expand Pre-K, but lawmakers tried to do that during the last session and it just didn't happen."
Tingle: "I think this upcoming legislative session at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, we house the Texas Kids Count Project and we're going to be really pushing lawmakers to be making choices that put kids first. Thinking about how a policy is going to affect our kids, making sure that those policies are at the top of their agenda heading into this session. So we'll do what we can."
Goudeau: "In the meantime, what do you recommend people do? If they take a look at these numbers if they're listening to this and they're concerned what would you like to see citizens do to get involved?"
Tingle: "Sure, well I would say one thing you can do is pay attention in your community, learn about hard to count census tracks, find out if you live in one, if you live in a hard-to-count community. If so, reach out to folks, let them know you know 'hey the census is coming up,' see about joining a complete count committee and know that that data is going to help improve some of those outcomes."