A Wish for Texas Children

I know that I share with every parent a sense of hope for their child’s future. And with one of every 11 U.S. kids living in Texas, the opportunities we create for our children will determine their future and also the future of our country.

That is why I was happy to see some bits of good news in the Texas section of the recent National KIDS COUNT Project annual report. School test scores have gone up and dropout rates have gone down. Eighteen percent of high school students did not graduate on time in 2012, compared to 28 percent in 2006. And although more uninsured children live in Texas than in any other state, the child uninsured rate is much lower than it was five years ago. Changes in state and local policies, investments in community programs and parental involvement have led to these modest improvements, but progress is slowing.

Texas remains one of the most challenging places to be a kid. The new report, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks Texas 43rd in overall child well-being relative to other states and says we haven’t improved much over the past few years. One in four Texas children lives in poverty, making it difficult for kids to access the support services they need.

The data show that Texas children are not seeing the same benefits from the state’s economic growth. More kids live in poverty now than in the depths of the recession. And even when you factor in the significant impact that our anti-poverty programs have on the poverty rate, kids’ outcomes are still lagging.

Education is a major challenge for Texas policymakers, as it presents the greatest pathway out of poverty, and that path starts early. Research shows that early investment in children is a wise financial investment and helps close the gaps for kids being ready for kindergarten. Unfortunately, in 2011, legislators cut approximately $200 million from public pre-kindergarten and only “reinvested” about $30 million in 2013. Today, over half of Texas’ 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend preschool.

Despite our modest health care coverage gains, Texas still ranks 49th in the nation for the percentage of children who are uninsured. Over 1 million Texas kids lack the health and financial benefits of insurance.

These challenges for Texas children can have lifelong consequences. A new study from Child Trends shows that for children, experiencing multiple types of trauma is associated with being disengaged at school and having behavior problems as adolescents. Prior research shows that these children are also at increased risk for obesity, alcoholism and depression as adults. Traumatic events can include family violence or substance abuse but also include living with the stress and instability that comes from living in poverty. As the 2014 National KIDS COUNT report shows, Texas is among the states where economic hardship is most common for kids, potentially stunting their academic, social and emotional growth.

What should Texas policymakers do to improve the chances for our children to succeed? They can fully invest in prekindergarten for our tiniest Texans. They can raise the minimum wage so that hardworking parents can support their families. And they can expand health care access for the working poor, many of whom have children.

With the right policy solutions and investments in our kids, all Texas children can make the most of their own challenges and opportunities, leading to success for themselves, our state and our country.

This was published earlier in the Austin American-Statesman on August 5th, 2014.

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