Children’s Trust hosted a panel discussion with lawmakers June 27 to review South Carolina’s highest ranking to date in an annual nationwide survey of child well-being. Improvements in family indicators and children with health insurance placed South Carolina at No. 38 in the nation for child well-being, according to the 2018 KIDS COUNT® Data Book. Neil White, who tells the stories of Children’s Trust, covered the event announcing the latest data and national rankings.
For the fourth consecutive year, the state of South Carolina moved up in the national rankings of child well-being compiled annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project.
By moving up to No. 38 – its best-ever ranking as measured in the domains of economic well-being, education, health, and family and community – the state is bringing to mind the famed quote about progress by Abraham Lincoln: “I’m a slow walker, but I never walk back.”
For the first 25 years of the rankings, South Carolina fluctuated between No. 42 and No. 48, never able to make the kind of strides in child well-being that could be called consistent progress. But as the state has climbed a little higher each year since 2014, a signal is being sent that unified efforts to improve the lives of children and families are starting to work.
Sue Williams, the CEO for Children’s Trust, which is the South Carolina grantee for the KIDS COUNT project, believes combined forces across the state are making a difference.
“We are seeing incremental improvements over time, and this shows us that the investments we are making in children, families and communities are adding up,” Williams said. “Much of this success is because South Carolina parents, community leaders and state and federal legislators have long advocated for the well-being of kids and implemented programs, like children’s health insurance, to ensure that children have opportunities to thrive.”
Partnering with the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, Children’s Trust held a panel discussion at the University of South Carolina School of Law focused on policy opportunities for improvements. Williams moderated a conversation among four state legislators who serve on the committee: Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, the committee chair; Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort; Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland; and Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens.
The lawmakers were pleased with the overall improvement – citing things like lower teen pregnancy rates, fewer children without health insurance, and a stronger child passenger law that’s saving lives. Bernstein referenced the teen birth rate per 1,000, which has dropped from 43 to 24 over a six-year period.
“We want to make sure children aren’t having children,” Bernstein said, pointing to the efforts of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a partner of Children’s Trust. “We’ve been able to see some positive results, but we have more work to do in that area.”
There remains plenty of work to be done in a number of different areas in order to have a greater impact on children and families.
Hutto noted 23 percent of South Carolina’s 1.1 million children live in poverty, and many of them are struggling to receive a good education and proper health care. Erickson spoke of the pressing need for more accessible and affordable quality child care and preschool to get 3- and 4-year-olds ready to enter school. Collins pointed to the data that show 71 percent of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading and 74 percent of eighth-graders aren’t proficient in math, statistics that he stated “should horrify us” and cause state leaders to focus more on early childhood education.
“Those are challenges that we continue to face,” Hutto said. “There are still improvements to be made. Category by category, the KIDS COUNT Data Book gives us a snapshot year to year where all the children are in South Carolina. It always is encouraging to see when you’ve done something, and you see that there are improvements, but at the same time, you need to see where the real deficits are, too. We want to try and have children educated to be able to go into the work force, go into the military, go into college at the end of their 12 years, and right now, we are behind other states and have some catching up to do.”
There has been a 51 percent decrease since 2010 in uninsured children, leaving just 44,000 (four percent) without health insurance. When children have health insurance, they are more likely to receive the preventive care that they need to stay healthy, especially when there are injuries or chronic health issues. Health insurance also helps protect families from financial crisis caused by expensive medical bills. When children are healthy, they are able to learn, and their parents are less likely to miss work to care for a sick child.
Hutto still wants to drive that number much lower.
“We’ve still got about 40,000 that don’t have health insurance, but they’re all eligible,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting them signed up, making sure that their parents know, and making sure that we get them into a medical home because best outcomes for children’s health are having a consistent family doctor, practitioner or nurse practitioner that they can go to and not use the emergency room as their source of health care.”
Erickson pointed to poverty issues that can have such a direct impact on health and education for families as they raise children under the most difficult of circumstances. She called the struggle an hourly one, not simply a daily one.
She cited prevention programs like the ones implemented across the state by Children’s Trust – including home visiting, strengthening families and positive parenting – through local partners as the type of statewide and community resources that can bolster families on the front end.
“I see it first-hand. The dollars that we put into early childhood, the dollars we put into parenting practices, and (home visiting programs) Parents As Teachers and Nurse-Family Partnership, those things that build the family unit and support the family at an earlier stage actually go so much further than the dollars we spend, sadly, when we’re putting them into the Department of Juvenile Justice, for example,” Erickson said. “These children cost so much more to rehabilitate when we could have put a third, a quarter, an eighth of the dollars into what they needed when they were little and helping their families as young families.”
Erickson said the data show where the state’s children are and where they need to be. Collins strongly agrees with that assessment. He believes the current progress is a product of people working together in organizations, communities and the legislature.
“Collaboration needs to continue to happen, and we still need to understand and go by what evidence-based statistics are showing us,” Collins said. “We need to have that continued focus because Children’s Trust, the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, and the Children’s Law Center have been some of the most successful in the implementation of policy. And it should be rather easy since our outputs are still low. It’s a balance of encouraging everybody by saying ‘We’re doing it, we’re improving, keep it up, but, also, we’re nowhere close to where we need to be.’”