By Terry Brooks, executive director Kentucky Youth Advocates
Shel Silverstein, the late and wonderful children’s author, urges:
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
With the release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2019 national KIDS COUNT Data Book, champions for children can find lots of “shouldn’ts,” and “impossibles.” As an example, Kentucky comes in at 37th in the nation when it comes to economic well-being, with 22 percent of children in poverty and nearly one in three kids living in homes in which no parent has full-time, year-round employment. Those certainly are “shouldn’ts.” Consider supplemental data that shows the Commonwealth with the highest rate of child abuse in the nation and the third highest rate of children with incarcerated parents and candidly, “impossibles” come to mind.
And yet, this year’s national report on families gives me hope that “Anything can be.” No one can be pleased with our economic well-being ranking, yet childhood poverty in Kentucky has fallen by 15 percent since 2010. In addition, the percentage of teens neither in school nor working has dramatically improved by 36 percent. Over the same period, the percentage of children without health insurance fell by 43 percent and the teen birth rate declined by 37 percent.
Along with those encouraging data trends, I may be the only person around who sees the governor’s race as an “Anything can be moment,” despite the profound disagreements between Attorney General Beshear and Governor Bevin.
First of all, these two candidates actually do share a common thread – both back up their words with actions when it comes to kids. Secondly, the core issues around children and families are neither partisan, budget-busters or ambiguous. And, finally, we have state House and Senate leadership that has built an encouraging track record when it comes to standing tall for kids. In other words, we can move a far-ranging, smart and budget-sensitive agenda in 2020, and having a shared Beshear/Bevin Kids’ Agenda can be a catalyst.
A good place to start is with the solutions championed by the more than 100 partners in the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children coalition, more than 75 in the Kosair Charities’ Face It Movement to end child abuse, and myriad of other vibrant voices for children across the Commonwealth. Kids need both the Governor and the Attorney General to declare:
- I will continue the positive trend around child poverty by working with the General Assembly to pass a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit and enact legislation to curb predatory lending.
- I will continue the positive transformation of Kentucky’s child welfare system by fully supporting the nearly 100,000 children in the care of relatives with economic supports and other essential services, such as respite care, for those heroes caring for their kin.
- 96 percent of Kentucky’s kids have health insurance, and regardless of the healthcare plan I implement, I will guarantee that their coverage will be protected.
- To further strengthen children’s health, I will launch an all-out assault against the e-cigarette and vaping epidemic amongst middle and high school youth, including tax provisions and an increased purchase age of 21 to stem the tide.
- I will vigorously support a legislative omnibus bill around addressing child abuse and neglect that strengthens efforts to keep families together safely and ensures systems recognize and respond to any harm that comes to the youngest among us.
- I will keep families together by limiting incarceration for low-level charges through bipartisan bail reform and utilizing Family Recovery Courts to help parents achieve sobriety while safely caring for their children.
- No Kentucky child’s trajectory should ever be determined by zip code or skin color. Therefore, I will squarely and courageously face the racial and geographic disparities that mar our systems of child welfare, education, and youth justice and implement innovative programs and proven policies to eradicate those immoral disparities.
- I know that a focus on early childhood is imperative for kids and our current and future work force. Therefore, I will support our youngest of children’s future with enriched child care supports for families, stronger pre-school access, and the initiation of paid family leave.
- I understand the importance of the decennial census for state and local budget planning. I will champion efforts in the immediate to ensure all Kentucky children are counted in 2020 and planned for in the next decade.
What if then, in the midst of their deep divisions, Matt Bevin and Andy Beshear stood together and announced a common ground and common-sense agenda for the common good of kids? Now that would propel us dramatically closer to that “Anything can be” reality moment for the Commonwealth’s more than 1 million children.