This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on November 11, 2021.
By Dr. Terry Brooks
Leave no one behind. That is a foundational ethical commitment of the U.S. military, even embedded in the Airman and Soldier Creeds. More recently, it is the clarion tag line of the United Nations’ Sustainability Initiative around poverty.
It should become a nonnegotiable promise Kentucky makes to every one of our little boys and girls.
But currently that promise rings hollow for too many children because of rampant and institutional disparities, borne from factors ranging from zip code to income level. But let us be clear – no disparity is more pronounced or profound than skin color.
If we are serious about achieving equity for children, then we have to first acknowledge that there are major barriers to opportunity based on skin color that have created an unfair playing field. To mitigate the impacts of discriminatory practices, the effects of which having been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, will take sustained, courageous, creative, and focused efforts to overcome.
In this year’s Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book, we are diving into data by race for each key arena of child well-being and offering recommendations that would lead to more equitable outcomes for children across the Commonwealth.
Word count limits preclude a thorough review of all data domains, which include economic well-being, health, education, and family and community. But consider, as just one example, the issue of childhood poverty as illustrative of the challenge of disparity we face.
Statewide, over one in five children are growing up in poverty, meaning they live in a household that earns $25,926 or less for a family of four. And while child poverty rates have improved overall, rates remain much higher for Black (32 percent) and Latinx (30 percent) children compared to White children (19 percent). These disparities are due, in part, to historic and ongoing barriers to well-paying jobs for families of color due to housing segregation, neighborhood disinvestment, and workplace discrimination. This wealth gap multiplies across generations and contributes to the persistent high rates of Black families living in poverty and earning incomes too low to meet even basic family needs. A deeper look shows that the poverty rate increases to over two in five Black children in the state’s urban centers of Jefferson and Fayette Counties. And this is comparable to the 6 counties in southeastern Kentucky in which 40 percent or more of their entire child population lives in poverty.
There is no doubt that when we invest in what all children need – from our cities to mountains – and tailor additional supports for children who face greater barriers, each Kentucky kid will have a brighter future.
For example, permanently expanding the Child Tax Credit, making child care more accessible to working families, and protecting funding for current safety net programs would strengthen families’ financial stability, ensure children’s basic needs are met, and work to close the racial gaps in poverty rates.
The County Data Book is more than a publication about data; it is a call to action to achieve racial equity. It asserts that when we work together to identify and remove barriers and build on community resilience, we can boost up those most left behind.
I believe that we as a people – that we as a Commonwealth – have the heart and the imagination to ensure that we will not leave a single young person behind. And for that promise to become a reality for all of our kids, it will take every Kentuckian.
It means guts in the actions of political leaders. It means “everyday Kentuckians” must give voice to this ideal.
We can simply read data on a page, or we can truly transform the trajectory for every Kentucky child by facing these disparities head on and then tackling them with vigor.
View the 2021 County Data Book to see what actions you can take at kyyouth.org/kentucky-kids-count/.
Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates