25 years of counting kids: Income, race and inequality

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 5.13.44 PMSome 25 years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation began an annual, in-depth report on the well-being of children in the United States. The 2014 report shows our accomplishments — and our shameful failures. The area of education shows both.

Kids Count 2014 shows expanded access to early childhood programs during the time period, especially for low-income children. Math and reading scores also have increased steadily. So have high school graduation rates. Progress has not been even.

“Although rarely noted, the achievement gap between African-American and white students has declined considerably during the past 50 years. Within that same period, however, the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low income students in the United States has grown about 40 percent.  Indeed, low test scores among our lowest-income students appear to account for America’s mediocre rankings in international comparisons.

“The prevailing narrative about American public education is that it is ‘failing,’ but the reality is that the system serves the most advantaged children quite well, producing some of the highest test scores in the world. As both poverty and wealth have become more concentrated residentially, evidence suggests that school districts and individual schools are becoming increasingly segregated by socioeconomic status.

“Given that in-school factors account for only a third or less of the variation in test scores, we must face the fact that our high child poverty rate constrains our nation’s academic achievement. Schools can make a difference at the margins, but they cannot overcome the vast cognitive and social-emotional development differences between high- and low-income children that are already entrenched by the time kids enter kindergarten.” Kids Count 2014, page 12

Does that mean it’s time to congratulate ourselves for narrowing the racial achievement gap? Not at all.

“[The] harsh reality [is] that too many of our country’s children of color begin their lives with multiple disadvantages. They are more likely than their white peers to be born into poverty and to fragile families; they are more likely to grow up in communities where poverty is concentrated, jobs are scarce and violence is prevalent.

“Because of residential segregation by race and class, many children of color attend neighborhood schools that are poorly funded and overcrowded. Under such conditions, education — which we, as a nation, deeply cherish as the great equalizer — simply exacerbates inequality … ” Kids Count 2014, page 14

Minnesota is, of course, above average. We rank fifth in the nation in overall child well-being. Minnesota is also above average in racial disparities — and that’s our shameful failure. Nearly half the black children in Minnesota live in poverty, compared to eight percent of white children. You can go to the Kids Count Data Center and find lots of numbers. The Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund press release summarizes:

“[W]hile 15 percent of all Minnesota children lived in poverty in 2012, the rates were much higher for children of color with 46 percent of African-American children, 38 percent of American Indian children, 30 percent of Hispanic or Latino children, and 20 percent of Asian children living in poverty.”

Preschool is one of the most-touted tools to attack the achievement gap. Some 52 percent white Minnesota three and four-year-olds are not attending preschool. For black children, the percentage climbs to 61 percent, and for Latino children, the percentage is 65 percent. The percentage of white children enrolled in preschool has increased by four percent since 2005. For black and Latino children, the increase was just one percent.

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Poor children also miss out on preschool. More than half of all children whose families have incomes above 200 percent of the poverty level attend preschool. Less than 40 percent of children with lower incomes attend preschool. [Kids Count Data Center]

Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund director Peggy Flanagan summed up the good news/bad news story in the press release:

“Looking back at the last 25 years of data on Minnesota children it is evident that investments in children, like funding for early childhood education and access to health care, improved outcomes for children and our state as a whole. Since 1990 we have come to better understand how to give children a good start and ensure successful passage into adulthood. It’s crucial to our state and nation’s economy that we take what we have learned to ensure future investments in programs and policies that help all children succeed.”

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