This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on January 2, 2022.
By Dr. Terry Brooks
This time of year, we all waver between setting New Year’s resolutions and simply dismissing the process as an inevitable failure. (Really? No snacks after 8 p.m.? I’m going to learn a new hobby? And, of course, I’ll be at the gym by 6 a.m. at least four mornings a week!)
But “Psychology Today” lists several reasons why setting those new year’s goals are important:
1. Goals are how things get done.
2. Goals mean clarity.
3. Goals give us meaning.
4. Goals mean progress.
Let me respectfully suggest that Kentucky’s General Assembly get into the business of New Year’s resolutions, too: Ensure that policy wins result from the important work of the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity. This bipartisan group, established last year and thoughtfully led by Chairpersons Sen. David Givens and Rep. Samara Heavrin, has tackled their charge by exploring the issues and policy solutions based on data and pragmatism. If the good work of this group is to bear fruit, then the 2022 General Assembly must enact a distinct legislative agenda to begin to address systemic disparities in the commonwealth.
To date, this group’s work has highlighted a set of issues that reflect common disparities by zip code and by skin color.
As an example, the overall trendline for child poverty pre-pandemic in Kentucky is a positive one, though we cannot be content when over 200,000 of our kids live in poverty.
However, poverty is a condition ripe with disparities. While 21% of all Kentucky children live in poverty, over 40% of the children living in six of our poorest counties – all in southeastern Kentucky – are mired in poverty. And similarly, 42% of Black children in Fayette and Jefferson Counties live in that same condition. That means that disparities in poverty cut across geography and race. That also means that research-based solutions – like enacting a state Earned Income Tax Credit, protecting the “kid safety nets” of SNAP, KCHIP, and K-TAP, and deepening infrastructure supports for child care – are important to that little girl in Louisville and that little boy in Lee County.
The opportunity to advance the work of the Commission also features a myriad of bipartisan, commonsense policy ideas that can and should become law in 2022.
Juvenile justice is a particularly resonant example. For children ages 12 and younger, more than two-thirds of complaints are for status offenses – like missing school or running away – and misdemeanors, which can be more effectively addressed within the community instead of the courts. Schools refer a large portion of cases to court, and data show that complaints are filed on young Black children at a rate twice as high of children of other races. The General Assembly can build on its landmark workaround trauma-informed care and leverage school-based interventions, such as restorative justice practices, as an age-appropriate alternative to the justice system. Additionally, Kentucky can follow the lead of 22 states that have established a minimum age that a child can be charged with an offense. Other states have found diversions that both promote public safety and put young children on the path to success instead of beginning the cycle of incarceration.
Another opportunity beckoning our legislators around equity is health coverage.
Kentucky has a real success story when it comes to child health coverage with 96% of kids covered, yet a significant coverage gap lingers for Latinx children. Our General Assembly can close that gap by increasing investments to conduct outreach and enrollment with the Latinx population using culturally relevant messages and trusted messengers. Also, we can take action to allow Medicaid health providers to bill for translation and interpretive services to promote culturally competent care in all health care settings.
A final example of policy work that can be tackled in 2022 is around data collection. A real weakness in the current work to eliminate disparities is a lack of data by race, and the data that does exist carries neither consistency nor quality assurance. The General Assembly can ensure that Kentucky has a data system in every phase of government that impacts a child – education, health, justice, economics, early care. That system can be an invaluable tool to the Commission and to every legislator as priorities are established to advance equity in immediate and far-reaching ways.
At the first meeting of the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity, Co-Chair Givens stated, “My light bulb moment is that this Commission has to be all about policy.”
How can you say it better? If the work of the Commission is to become a life-changing reality rather than a well-meaning rhetorical effort, then the 2022 General Assembly will pass a policy agenda with a focus on eliminating the historic disparities that cut across every system that impacts our children’s lives.
Dr. Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. Learn more about the 2022 Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children policy priority agenda at kyyouth.org.