Gulf in child well-being: Report calls for action to bridge racial gap

Gulf in child well-being: Report calls for action to bridge racial gap

April 1st, 2014 by Kate Belz in Local Regional News

Vinson Waller Jr., right, looks at illustrations in the book "Where The Wild Things Are" while at the Head Start facility Monday in East Chattanooga. Head Start is a program that aids in early childhood development for low-income families.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Race for Results index

Race for Results index

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

For the first time last year, the majority of babies born in the U.S. were not white.

By 2018, children of color will make up the majority of American children. And by 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be comprised of people of color.

But a national report released today shows that odds for a successful future are "disproportionately stacked" against black and Hispanic children, based on a spectrum of education- and health-related factors.

On virtually all measures, both nationally and in Tennessee, white and Asian children are performing better than black and Hispanic children - in some cases two to three times better.

In Tennessee, which ranked 32nd in the country for overall child welfare, the percentage of fourth-graders proficient in reading was 44 and 51 among white and Asian children, respectively, and among Hispanic and black children it was 15 and 20 percent.

The percentage of white and Asian children living above 200 percent of the federal poverty line - which, for a family of four, is a $47,700 household income - is twice the percentage of black and Hispanic children.

On the "overall" index for Tennessee, white children scored 607 out of 1,000 and Asian children scored 774, while black children reached 312 and Hispanic children scored 362.

The report describes the challenges facing African-American children as "a national crisis."

For black children, the states with the lowest scores were in the South and upper Midwest - with Wisconsin at the bottom, followed closely by Mississippi and Michigan. The highest scores were in states with relatively small black populations - Hawaii, New Hampshire, Utah and Alaska.

Officials described the need to close the gap as a "race against time."

"There's really an urgency to ensuring that all kids have the opportunity to reach their full potential, and it will become more of an issue as the country becomes more diverse," said Laura Speer, assistant director of policy reform and advocacy at Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national philanthropic organization that released the report, called "Race for Results."

"If you're not worried about it because it's the right thing to do, there are dollar and cents reasons why we should be worried about it," she said.

Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said the state's shifting demographics reveal how high the stakes are becoming to address what are often entrenched disparities.

"These children of color are a growing part of our workforce of tomorrow, and they are our future parents," O'Neal said. "Just to have the data shows us what our underlying challenges are."

The Casey Foundation has published state-specific data to track children's progress for a quarter of a century. But this is the first time the foundation has released the data broken down by racial and ethnic groups. Georgia ranked 36th on the overall list,

Doing so, officials say, provides a more nuanced picture of what encourages or hampers a child's success. It shows the intersection between income and race. And it also shows, Speer said, the impact of history.

"There are decisions and events in our history that continue to keep particular groups from being able to move forward," she said.

Many of the children of color grow up in environments of "toxic stress," explained O'Neal. Their brains are handicapped by the trauma of chronic poverty, violence, homelessness, and, especially in Tennessee, substance abuse.

That's a key reason why, officials explained, getting to the children and their families early is a key priority. Preschool age is the prime age for brain development, and progress there is crucial for success.

"What we mostly see in our program are children with speech and language delays," explained Sherry Hutsell, director of Chattanooga's Head Start program, which works with primarily low-income children from birth to age 5. "Their parents may not have read to them on a consistent basis. The sooner we identify that, the sooner we can help them."

In Tennessee, black children actually scored highest in the percentage of children enrolled in preschool. While the report does not measure the quality of the preschool, Neal said that growing enrollment is a key improvement.

"Hopefully we'll see results of that over time," she said.

Tarra Simmons, left, works with Genesis Daniels, bottom, and Makayla Griffin on creating a rainbow while at the Head Start facility Monday in East Chattanooga. Head Start is a program that aids in early childhood development for low-income families.

Tarra Simmons, left, works with Genesis Daniels, bottom,...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Educating parents is just as important to reach this critical age group. State leaders say one successful program in bridging the gap is a home visit program called "Parents as Teachers."

The voluntary program allows parents to receive two or more home visits a month from county health department staff. The interactive parenting lessons can continue until the child is 5. In Hamilton County, the program serves about 96 families a year, said coordinator Marguerite Chambers.

"We know that children grow and develop based on their interactions with their parents more than any other influence," Chambers said.

One of Tennessee's positives in the report was a relatively high four-year high school graduation rate. While officials said it is a positive indicator for future jobs, they also cautioned that it does not show the quality of the education.

Race for Results index

Race for Results index

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

"It's astounding to me what kids at different ages don't know, and the skills they do not have. There is so much progress that needs to be made," said Bea Lurie, executive director of the Chattanooga chapter of Girls Inc., an after-school program that serves girls - many from low-income backgrounds - from age 6 to high school graduation.

"We have kids in one of our programs who didn't even know that the Tennessee River was here ... The racism and lack of resources across the county are so ingrained that we have a crisis in terms of where our kids are at."

Girls Inc. encourages even young girls to carve out education and career goals from what she says is a positive standpoint. They push interactive reading strategies, from theater to speechmaking, to show girls just how fun words are. The program tries to prevent teen pregnancy by showing girls how bright college and a future career can be.

High expectations for the girls have translated to high graduation results, she says.

As part of its recommendations, the Casey Foundation pushed for the collection of more racial and ethnic data for state program- and policy-making.

O'Neal cited pending legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that would require the Department of Education to report the number of student referrals to juvenile courts by school, by gender and by race.

Such data could be critical in future plans to help close what's been called the "school-to-prison pipeline," O'Neal said.

Other data could encourage Tennessee officials to bolster what she called a "fragile infrastructure" of family and child development programs, a move said would be an "investment."

The Casey Foundation cited research that showed that if the United States had closed the achievement gap between black and Latino and white students by 1998, today's gross domestic product would have been up to $525 billion higher.

"We tend to focus on our own children while failing to recognize that all children have the opportunity to become good employees and good parents and tax-paying productive adults," said O'Neal.

"And that starts at a very young age."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison or 423-757-6673.

This story has been corrected. A previous version stated that by 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that the majority of the U.S. workforce will be comprised of people of color. The correct date is 2030.