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Kids' well-being varies across counties

The dramatic yearly increases in poverty that have put hundreds of thousands of young Coloradans at risk for the past decade seem finally to have slowed, but the well-being of the state’s children still depends greatly on the county in which they live, a new report shows.

Children in Douglas, Broomfield and Larimer counties appear to be faring the best, according to the 2012 KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released Tuesday. Children in Adams, Morgan and Denver counties rank the lowest statewide on 12 key indicators of overall well-being.

“I was surprised at how closely all the key indicators for child well-being correlate with a county’s poverty ranking,” said Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, which released the annual report.

“It tells us the economic circumstances a child lives in matter dramatically in their well-being. While we’ve always known that, to see it so closely correlated in indicator after indicator still is surprising and fairly disheartening.”

The report, entitled “The Importance of Place: Variations in Child Well-Being Across Colorado,” is modeled after state child well-being comparisons published every year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In Colorado, researchers tracked how children in the state’s 25 largest counties fared on a range of indicators that measure health, education and family status. Those 25 counties are home to 95 percent of the state’s 1.23 million residents under 18. More than a quarter of the state’s children live in the five counties with the lowest ranking.

Child poverty rates flatten after years of sharp increases

Most noteworthy about the report’s findings is the number of children in Colorado living in poverty.

In 2010, about 210,000 of the state’s children – or 17 percent – were living in families earning at or below the federal poverty level, which is $22,350 for a family of four.

That’s roughly the same as in 2009, marking one of the rare instances in the past decade when the numbers didn’t rise sharply. It’s also lower than the national average of 22 percent of children living in poverty.

“It’s too soon to tell if that’s a long-term trend, but it’s certainly something to take note of,” Watney said.

Denver has the highest percentage of children living in poverty, nearly 31 percent. Close behind are the children living in the counties in the San Luis Valley. Douglas County had the lowest rate of the counties surveyed, less than 4 percent.

But the Denver suburbs are by no means insulated from poverty. In 2000, there were 29,000 children living in poverty in the three suburban counties adjacent to Denver – Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe. That was just slightly more than then 25,000 living in Denver itself. By 2010, Denver had 42,000 children living in poverty, and the suburban counties had 59,000. That means poverty grew nearly twice as fast in the suburbs as in the central city.

And while Colorado’s childhood poverty numbers flattened this year, the number of children living in low-income families – those with incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level – rose 12 percent.

Number of uninsured children down dramatically

A noteworthy positive change is the number of previously uninsured children who now have health care coverage. In 2010, just 10 percent of Colorado children were uninsured, down from 14 percent in 2008.

Some of this is due to the fact that as children’s families slide out of the middle class and into poverty, they become eligible for Medicaid and CHP+, so poorer children might have better health care coverage than those that are slightly more affluent.

But that’s not the whole story, Watney said.

“The state expanded those programs, created more slots to get more kids in the programs,” she said. “So that’s a direct reflection of choices made by policymakers in the state.”

In other areas related to child health, location also appears to play a major role in obesity levels.

Garfield, Eagle and Summit counties on the Western Slope had the lowest rate of childhood obesity – 17.1 percent, while Morgan and Logan counties on the Eastern Plains had the highest, 40.1 percent.

Statewide, about one child in four is overweight or obese.

More kids in all-day kindergarten

In education-related findings, the number of Colorado children enrolled in all-day kindergarten continues to grow impressively. In 2007, only 40 percent of kindergarteners in Colorado attended all day. By 2011, 67 percent did.

“Kids having access to high-quality learning in the early grades has a real impact on their academic success in later years,” Watney said.

But the expansion of all-day kindergarten can be just as much a boon to parents as to kids, because finding affordable child care continues to be problematic in Colorado. The state is the fourth-least-affordable in the country when it comes to finding good-quality infant care, and ninth-least affordable for center-based care for a preschooler.

In Denver, a two-parent family with an infant and a preschooler can expect to spend more than a third of their living expenses on child care.

“I worry about that, because a lot of Colorado families simply are unable to afford good quality care,” Watney said.

The report also details the rapid demographic changes taking place among Colorado’s children. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of non-Hispanic white children in the state declined from 66 to 58 percent. Already, children of color are a majority of the population in 15 counties, and the state demographer’s office projects that children of color will outnumber non-Hispanic white children statewide by 2021.

Achievement gap widens

Finally, the report reveals ongoing wide gaps in student achievement. In Routt County, just 19 percent of fourth-graders read below grade level. That’s lower, even, than Douglas County, where 21 percent read below grade level.

But in Denver, 56 percent of fourth-graders struggle with reading and across the Eastern Plains, the numbers are between 40 and 46 percent.

“The question for me about all of these numbers is why,” Watney said. “Why do the disparities continue to grow? Why does a state so prosperous in so many ways continue to see dramatic increases in childhood poverty? How can a state that cares so much about its kids struggle in so many areas of child well-being?”

Watney speculated that part of Colorado’s lagging economic recovery can be traced to the state’s inability to invest in programs and services important to children:

“When you look at other states that are able to make those kinds of investments in programs that support kids, especially vulnerable kids, that’s a difference.”

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