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Report: Florida ranks 40th in 'child well-being' despite gains in jobs and health insurance

Economic well-being ranked 45th: Mary Ott holds her grandson Erik Saez outside the Mosley Motel in St. Petersburg, where many low-income families were forced out in August after a change in ownership. According to a new report, 23 percent of children in Florida live in poverty, and low unemployment levels have not translated to better economic conditions for kids.
Economic well-being ranked 45th: Mary Ott holds her grandson Erik Saez outside the Mosley Motel in St. Petersburg, where many low-income families were forced out in August after a change in ownership. According to a new report, 23 percent of children in Florida live in poverty, and low unemployment levels have not translated to better economic conditions for kids.
Published Jun. 14, 2017

Despite a decrease in the number of uninsured kids in Florida, the state ranked 40th in overall child well-being — the same as last year and down from 37th in 2015, according to a report released Tuesday.

The ranking is based on data from four categories — economic well-being, education, health and family and community — compiled by Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The organization bills Kids Count as the nation's top source for information on the well-being of children and families.

"We have lots of work to do to ensure our kids are healthy and strong," said Norin Dollard, director of Florida Kids Count, housed at the University of South Florida's College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

A big part of the state's overall low ranking stems from economic factors, she said.

Florida ranked 45th in economic well-being, with 23 percent of children living in poverty and 31 percent having parents who were unemployed. Forty percent lived in households that spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing, and 8 percent of teens were not in school or not working.

The report states that low unemployment levels haven't translated to better economic conditions for children. "Because of rising inequality," it concludes, "last year's broad-based wage growth means that most workers are simply making up lost ground rather than getting ahead."

Said Dollard: "The jobs are out there, but they don't afford a liveable wage or . . . offer (families) insurance for their children."

To make rent for an average apartment in Hillsborough County, she said, someone earning minimum wage would need to work 90 hours a week, meaning two parents would need to work full-time. According to the report, 40 percent of kids in Florida live in single-parent households.

Cory Adler, executive director of St. Petersburg's 2020 Task Force, called the state's ranking "disappointing and disheartening." The task force tries to lift families out of poverty by helping parents find employment, but it's difficult, she said.

"Right now, families can be penalized for exiting poverty when benefits fall away," Adler said. "They're going from unemployed and receiving benefits to employed and losing benefits, unless there are jobs available that can help them sustain."

In the category of health, Florida ranked 44th, though the number of uninsured kids decreased by 46 percent from 2010 to 2015. The ranking took into account the number of uninsured children, the rate of low-birth weight babies, child and teen deaths and the rate of drug or alcohol abuse.

While not all of the credit for getting more children insured goes to the Affordable Care Act, recent efforts by Congress to repeal it are concerning, said Florencia Gutierrez, a senior associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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"Along with expansion of Medicaid and children's health insurance programs, we have really worked towards ensuring children have access to health insurance," Gutierrez said. "The nation is seeing an all-time high in kids being covered by health insurance. We believe this is an American victory and this is something we should protect and not back away from."

Kelley Parris, executive director for the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, said the data will be important in securing state funding to address problems. The board, she said, has focused largely on education, where Florida ranked 31st in the Kids Count data.

"You look at the number of kids touched by juvenile justice and their literacy levels, those who smoke and put their health at risk and their literacy levels, those with undiagnosed and unmedicated mental health issues and their literacy levels, early learning and education help," she said.

The Kids Count education ranking took into account the number of 3- and 4-year-olds not in school, fourth-graders not proficient in reading, eighth-graders not proficient in math and teens not in school.

Florida ranked 35th for family and community factors, as measured by single-parent households, children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma, children living in high-poverty areas and teen births, which decreased in Florida.

New Hampshire ranked first among the states, followed by Massachusetts and Vermont. Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi ranked lowest.

The report also found racial disparities nationally. Twelve percent of white children lived in poverty, compared with 36 percent of black children and 31 percent of Hispanic children.

The 2020 task force found that, based on 2014 Census data, the contrast was even more stark in St. Petersburg, with 61 percent of black children under age 6 living in poverty compared to 30 percent of Hispanic children and 14 percent of white children of the same age.

Nationally, African-Americans and Hispanics also had higher rates of low-birth weights, single-parent households, families where the head of household lacks a high school diploma and children living in high poverty areas.

Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign, a Tallahassee nonprofit focused on children's issues in Florida, called the report sobering.

"Public investments in children haven't kept up with population growth," he said. "And it shows."

The report will be a useful tool in approaching state legislators, said Sonia Lindell, a communications specialist with the Florida Policy Institute.

"State lawmakers aren't investing enough in public services," she said. "Across party lines, everyone can agree the well-being of children is of utmost importance. We're at the bottom of the barrel in terms of ranking."

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