PHOTO: Children play on a slide in Montavilla Park during the "We are Black. We are Portland." barbecue. Organized by the Portland African American Leadership Forum, the event was one of a series of get-togethers designed to celebrate and unite Portland's Black community.
A new report from the Annie E. Casey foundation ranked Washington state at 18th in the nation on measures of child well being, while Oregon lags at 30th.
Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First for Oregon, said the state's low ranking doesn't reflect the values of people who live here.
"Particularly concerning are the family economic stability indicators in the report that show Oregon is now 40th among all the states for family economic stability," she said. "That has a lot of long-term impacts for kids."
Lori Pfingst, research and policy director at the Washington State Policy Center, said her main concern is that children of color have not seen the same improvements as other children.
"The biggest lesson in this data is that declining economic security among children and families, and the opportunity gap for kids of color are really holding back Washington state from making real progress from recovering from the downturn and setting ourselves up well for the future."
Hunt too pointed to disparities that hurt children of color. High poverty rates in Oregon's communities of color are linked to school dropout, she said. And because educational success is crucial to lifting families out of poverty, Oregon needs make sure more kids of color attend pre-school and get support to succeed all the way through college.
" We need to do more there," she says. "There is no question we need to do more. I think it's important that we look at high-quality education throughout the system from early childhood, early education, quality pre-school, quality daycare settings up through access to higher education for youth leaving high school."
Massachusetts rated highest overall
The Kids Count Data Book 2014 highlights national trends in child well-being, and compares states on 16 measures in four different sections: Economic well being; Education; Health; and Family and Community.
The state rated best overall for child well being was Massachusetts, followed by Vermont ranked second and Iowa at third. At the bottom of the overall rankings were Mississippi at 50th, New Mexico at 49th and Nevada, 48th.
Washington ranked higher than Oregon thanks to its stronger economy. Washington achieved better results in the economy, education and family and community categories. Oregon did best in the child health section, ranking at 7th in the country. Washington also ranked high in the child health section, ranking 9th.
The rankings look at measures that research has identified as important to children's well-being and long-term chances for success. Being born into poverty, for example, is closely linked to a range of negative outcomes for children.
"We know that kids who grow up in poverty often have a low level of chronic trauma in their lives," Pfingst says. "It doesn't have to be true, but oftentimes it is true that kids in very, very low-income or no-income families don't have adequate nutrition or adequate healthcare. Their education can suffer because of instability or problems at home. All of those factors create a kind of chronic stress in their lives that is very, very difficult to recover from."
Nationally, the report says children's lives have improved overall on a wide range of measures since the foundation first published Kids Count 25 years ago. However, the recession reversed that steady progress, plunging more families into poverty, and increasing the numbers of children whose parents are unemployed.
Government should reform wage, tax and childcare policies
Pfingst said government policies, many created 30-40 years ago, should be updated to reflect the challenges families face today. Washington's tax system is the most regressive in the country, she says, meaning the poorest families pay more than their fair share.
Seattle's decision to increase the minimum wage will benefit poor children, she said. That's a start.
"Wage policy is one thing we can do," she says. "At the state level we can pass Earned Income Tax Credit, which would be a big boost to the finances of low-income working families. Right now it's not funded. We can also make sure all workers have access to paid sick leave. We could increase our subsidies for child care so that child care is affordable, and we could expand the system so everyone has access to it."
Hunt offered a similar analysis, saying Oregon's families need more support if children are to succeed.
"If we want people to be able to work and support their families while not living in poverty, that means we have to look at what our minimum wage laws are and need to be, and also what our tax structure is doing to protect and support our lowest income workers."
The cost of childcare in Oregon is among the highest in the nation, Hunt said. But the state employment related daycare program, which helps low-income families pay for high quality daycare can't meet the need.
" We are not able to support as many families as are eligible for the program," Hunt says. "So the program fills and other people are just out of luck. They want to stay in the workforce. They want to make a livable wage for their families. But they need help with the simple thing of paying for quality safe childcare."
Oregon's House Speaker Tina Kotek has recommended expanding employment related daycare program.
Black kids face steeper challenges
The report found children of color are struggling most, the report finds. Racial disparities leave larger numbers of Black, Native American and Hispanic children facing steeper challenges than their white counterparts. Nationally, four out of 10 Black children live in poverty, for example, although the overall rate is closer to two in 10. Native American and Hispanic children also facing higher than average rates. Other examples of measures where children of color fare worse than children overall are:
Black babies are more likely to have a low birthweight
Black and Hispanic families are more likely to spend a high amount of their income on housing
Black teens are more likely to become parents
Black babies are more often born to single parents
Students of color fare worse on measures of educational success
Equity must be front and center of the conversation, Pfingst says.
"As we march toward becoming a state where children of color will soon be half of all the newborns, over half of the workers will be people of color. And if we don't fix those gaps in opportunity that kids of color face, it's bad for them and it's bad for our future."
Efforts to reduce child could improve outcomes
Hunt said Children First for Oregon is working with United Way to tackle poverty. United Way has convened a coalition of 30 nonprofits, including: Self Enhancement Inc. IRCO, Verde, the Urban League of Portland and the Latino Network.
"I think that work has great promise to tackle the complex problem of child poverty," Hunt said. "It will be very interesting to see how that work begins to come together over the next three to five years and begins to move the needle on childhood poverty in our region."
PHOTO: Students at Boise Eliot school talked to Sen. Jeff Merkley about their science projects during a visit. Students raised salmon and released them into the river as part of studying the salmon life-cycle.
The state rated best for child economic well being was North Dakota, followed by South Dakota ranked second and Iowa third. The rankings are based on: the percentage of children living in poverty, the percentage whose parents lack employment, the percentage whose families pay high housing costs, and the percentage of teens who are not in school or work.
Oregon, was ranked 40th and Washington 27th in the country for child economic well-being. One reason? Oregon has a higher rate of children in poverty than Washington.
Rated best in the country for education was Massachusetts followed by New Jersey and Vermont. Oregon ranked 35th and Washington 20th. What made the crucial difference? Oregon has a higher percentage of fourth graders who can't read at grade level, than Washington. It also has a higher percentage of eighth graders whose math skills fall below grade level.
Iowa was the top rated state for education, followed by Massachusetts and Maine. Oregon was ranked 7th and Washington 9th for child health. The health ratings look at: numbers of low-birthweight babies, child death rates, health insurance coverage and teen alcohol and drug abuse. Oregon and Washington had similar scores on all four of the measures.
Family and Community
The family and community measures looked at: numbers of children in single parent families, children whose parents lack a high school diploma, children living in high-poverty neighborhoods and children born to teens.
New Hampshire was ranked highest, followed by Utah and Vermont. Oregon was ranked 22nd, while Washington was ranked 17th. Washington outperforms Oregon on all four measures.