This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal November 19, 2020.
Jyoti Arora in You Came Like Hope asserts, “it takes only a moment for the destiny to flip over.”
The haunting message emanating from the 2020 Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book is that far too many boys and girls in the Commonwealth had their destiny flip the moment they were born. Because of the zip code in which they live. Because of the color of their skin. Because of how much money their parent was making.
The data is clear and convicting – there is little in common when it comes to growing up in the Commonwealth. Painful disparities mark every aspect of children’s well-being. The data emanating from the 30th edition of our annual report card on child health, education, and economics underscores the systemic and historic inequities of race and geography with numbers that cannot be rationalized away, and that will only continue to be exacerbated by the ripple effects of the pandemic.
- While child poverty rates improved in 107 out of 120 counties, over 1 in 5 children were in poverty prior to the pandemic, especially concentrated in the southeastern region of the Commonwealth
- Kentucky ranks 40th in broadband access with 30 percent of students – 35 percent of students of color – lacking adequate technology at home
- Child health coverage rates continue to improve, yet disparities persist with 91 percent of Latinx youth with health insurance in 2019 compared to 97 percent of their Black peers and 96 percent of their White peers
- Even before the pandemic, Kentucky’s child care sector was unstable for child care centers and insufficient for families, especially as half of communities have limited or no access to care
We at Kentucky Youth Advocates believe in the power of data to shine light on inequities and inspire action so that all children – children in families with limited income, children from rural areas, children from cities, children with special needs, and children who have experienced trauma – have the opportunity to thrive.
As we look at the blitzkrieg of crises, we can easily feel overwhelmed and powerless. Others see the converging challenges of confronting historic and systemic racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis so many families are experiencing and fall into well-meaning but essentially useless rhetoric. Or, our reform-minded leaders can look at these disparities as a chance to architect innovation and change; we can use these unprecedented days as lightning in a bottle and take action that makes a palpable difference.
When it comes to Kentucky’s kids, I choose that third path because that bias for action – action that is achievable, research-based, pragmatic, and principled – can and will begin to flip the destiny for our state’s children and youth. And I have hope.
We have a Governor for whom kids are a priority. We have elected leaders in both legislative chambers that have demonstrated an unyielding and bold track record on behalf of kids for the last several legislative sessions. And we have so many more Kentuckians – parents and grandparents; principals and preachers; pediatricians and policemen; business leaders and grassroot community organizers. That litany of voices may not agree on everything, but theirs is a common chorus when it comes to children.
Space limits a full accounting of what that bias for action can and should look like. With our partners at The Courier Journal and at the community level, we do dig a bit deeper into themes around health equity, the digital divide, the crisis our child care sector faces, and re-thinking the impact of parental incarceration in companion op-eds in the “Community Forum.”
From a policy metanarrative, we have to have a multi-front offense. That means U.S. Senate Majority Leader McConnell and our Congressional delegation in D.C. It means Governor Beshear, Lt. Governor Coleman, Senate President Stivers, and House Speaker Osborne in Frankfort. And, it means a diverse cadre of local leaders in every rural and urban community.
At the federal, state, and local level we can apply courage and gumption around action-oriented themes that create a strong, equitable recovery that reaches all Kentuckians, like:
- Responding to the impacts of trauma and prioritizing mental health supports.
- Addressing the vulnerability of low-wage workers and families of color by tackling the high-price of being poor.
- Strengthening access to health coverage and care for communities of color
- Bridging the digital divide for employment, education, and health.
- Prioritizing closing gaps in educational achievement exacerbated by the pandemic.
- Ensuring that families can meet their basic needs until the economy recovers.
Instead of merely a moment of unprecedented crises, we can make 2021 a moment of unprecedented opportunity. We can flip the destiny of EVERY kid in Kentucky for the good with those kinds of commonsense and common ground priorities for action.
Terry Brooks is the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. View the 2020 Kentucky KIDS COUNT County Data Book and county-level data profiles at kyyouth.org.