LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky children’s overall well-being is improving, but a recent report shows there is still a need for improvement in some areas. 

What You Need To Know

  • Kentucky ranks 37th in the nation overall

  • Improvement shown in 10 of 17 categories

  • Differences remain among children in rural and urban areas

  • Major disparities present in children of color

The 2021 Kids Count County Data Book compiled by Kentucky Youth Advocates and the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville was released Nov. 10, 2021. The report is part of the 31st annual release of Kids Count, a national initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the status of children in the United States. 

The report provides information on the overall well-being of children in each county through 17 measures in four areas: economic security, education, family and community and health.

Kentucky’s children ranked 37th in the nation in overall well-being and have improved in 10 of 17 categories since 2020. As the report shows and Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News reported, while the Commonwealth has improved in teen pregnancies and smoking during pregnancy, for example, there are significant disparities between counties and children of color. 

Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks said in an interview with Spectrum News 1 this time last year, Kids Count detailed the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. 

“While it’s easy to feel like we’re treading water on both fronts, the reality is that we must continue to learn, to dialogue with each other, and build the bridges that will carry us toward the vision of making Kentucky the best place to be young,” he said. “We know that the impacts of discriminatory practices, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, will take sustained and focused efforts to overcome. So, in this year’s book, we are diving into data by race for each key arena of child well-being to help inform the newly created Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity and identify some clear policies that would lead to more equitable outcomes for children across the Commonwealth.”

Brooks also said in a news release the disparities are caused by “historical and systemic issues connected to the color of one’s skin,” adding many of which have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“All kids face a long climb in their journey to adulthood, but kids of color have to climb a steeper hill due to long-standing inequities and specific barriers based on their skin color or country of origin,” he said. “When we invest in what all children need and tailor additional support for children who face greater barriers, each Kentucky kid will have a brighter future.”

Brooks pointed to poverty as a glaring example. While the number of children in Kentucky in poverty has decreased, children in cities are more likely to live in poverty than those in rural areas, and Latinx and Black children are also more likely to live in poverty.

“First and foremost, let’s clear up confusion about what equity means,” Brooks said in the report. “Achieving equity for Kentucky kids means acknowledging that there are major barriers to opportunity based on ZIP code, income level and skin color that have created an unfair playing field. It means working together to identify and remove those barriers and boost up those most left behind. The reality is that when we shift our focus to our most vulnerable kids, we find that children of color in urban areas and children in rural parts of the state face unique challenges. Still, at times, they encounter similar struggles.”

The 2021 Kids Count County Level Data Book was released Nov. 10, 2021. Click the image to read the full report. (Kentucky Youth Advocates)

According to the report, 20.9% of Kentucky's children lived below the federal poverty level in 2019, down from 25.9% in 2014. Oldham County had the lowest share of children in poverty at 4.8% and Lee County had the highest at 44.3%. Lee is among 22 of the state’s 120 counties in which more than one-third of children live below the poverty line, which in 2019 was $25,750 for a family of four. 

“With the cost of housing, food and transportation, most families need an income of at least twice the official poverty level to cover their basic needs,” according to the report.

The report shows poverty rates are much higher for Black (32%) and Latinx (30%) children and children of two or more races (33%) than white children (19%). Nearly 1-in-4 Kentuckians are children.

Another indicator of poverty is how much a family's income goes toward rent. In Kentucky, nearly half of renters, 45%, spent at least 30% of their income on rent and utilities, another factor exacerbated by the pandemic. Thirty-seven of the state’s 120 counties stayed the same or got worse on this indicator. 

“Children’s issues must not be reduced to choosing a side,” Brooks said in the report. “Children’s issues are neither Democrat nor Republican. They are neither rural nor urban. They are neither Black, brown nor white. Kids are counting on us to put aside our differences and work together to ensure that every Kentucky kid — regardless of ZIP code, income level or color of their skin — has the opportunity to meet their full potential.”

According to the report, fewer babies were born to mothers who reported smoking at any point during pregnancy in Kentucky, and fewer Kentucky teens are having babies. Statewide, 16.7% of Kentucky's babies were born to women who reported smoking during pregnancy in 2017-19, down from 19.8% in 2012-14. Still, 19 counties saw an increase in this rate since 2012-14.

Warren, Daviess, Oldham, Jefferson, Fayette and Hancock counties had smoking-in-pregnancy rates of 10% or less, and 13 eastern Kentucky counties had rates of 30% or more: Menifee, Lee, Harlan, Elliott, Jackson, Breathitt, Wolfe, Bell, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Owsley and Martin, the only county above 40%. 

Teen births declined to 26.3 per 1,000 females aged 15-19 in 2017-19 from 37.7 births in 2012-14. The national rate of 16.7 per 1,000. 

There is a significant difference among counties, ranging from a low of 7.1 teen births per 1,000 in Oldham County to a high of 62.3 in Powell County. 

Nine counties had higher teen-birth rates in 2017-19 than they did in 2012-14: Lewis, 54.4 births per 1,000; Harrison, 43.5; Monroe, 43.3; Ballard, 41.4; LaRue, 37.8; Breckinridge 32.4; Edmonson, 32.2; Bourbon, 32.1; and Hickman, 28.9.

The number of low-birthweight babies in Kentucky increased to 8.8% in 2017-19 from 8.7% between 2012-14. A low-birthweight baby is defined as less than 5.5 pounds.

More than half of the state's counties saw an increase in low-birthweight babies since 2012-14. The rates varied from a low of 4.3% in Spencer County to a high of 13.1% in Union County.

Babies born to Black mothers were most likely to have low birth weight. Black mothers had 16.6 low-birthweight babies per 100 births in rural areas, compared to 8.7 for white mothers and 6.4 for Latinx mothers. 

“Strengthening access to quality health coverage before, during, and after pregnancy and closing gaps in the use of programs like the HANDS home-visiting program would reduce disparities in critical birth outcomes for Black babies and mothers,” according to the report.

The report also shows: 

  • While 90% of Kentucky's high school students are graduating on time, 87 of Kentucky's 167 school districts got worse on this indicator over the past five years. Forty-six percent of Kentucky's high school graduates were deemed academically ready for college.

  • Another gap is health-insurance coverage for the state's Latinx children, which is 91%, compared to 97% for Black children and 96% for white children. Overall, 95.7% of the state's children had health insurance, including Medicaid, in 2019.

  • The most recent data shows 37% of Kentucky children in foster care reunify with their parents or primary caretaker.

  • In Kentucky's foster-care system, the number of children increased to 53.7 per 1,000 children ages 0-17, from 39.2 in 2013-15. 

  • Black parents are incarcerated at substantially higher rates than parents of other races in all Kentucky counties, with the most significant disparity in suburban counties, where 16.1 Black parents per 1,000 adults are in state custody, compared to 2.8 per 1,000 adults for white parents. 

Because of the pandemic, this year's data book cannot provide comprehensive data for the most recent year for kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores. The report instead looked at the proportion of public-school students experiencing homelessness (3%), students with individualized education plans due to a disability (16%), and out-of-school suspension rates (9.6 suspensions for every 100 enrolled students). 

“We at Kentucky Youth Advocates believe that when we measure outcomes for kids, we can change outcomes for kids,” Brooks told Spectrum News 1. “Achieving equity for Kentucky children means acknowledging that there are major barriers to opportunity based on ZIP code, income level, and, particularly, skin color that have created an unfair playing field. It means working together to identify and remove those barriers, build on community resilience, and boost up those most left behind. There is no doubt that we should prioritize the needs of children growing up in both urban and rural Kentucky, and the reality is that all children will benefit from policies that seek to remove those underlying barriers.”