The State of Texas's Kids Isn't Getting Much Worse. But It Also Isn't Getting Any Better.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation just released KIDS COUNT, its annual report on child well-being in every state across the U.S. One of their grantees, the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, put the report for Texas on its website on Wednesday: The State of Texas Children. So how are the children, anyway?

We took a look at the data, both in Dallas County and statewide, and it doesn't look great. In 2009, says the report, 24 percent of children in the state were living in poverty, even though only 17 percent of the overall population is below the poverty line. Teen pregnancy's up in Dallas County almost 15 percent since 2000. We've got the third-highest teen birth rate in the country, in fact, just behind Mississippi and New Mexico. The rates of low birth-weight babies, premature babies and infant mortality are all up here as well.

According to Texas KIDS COUNT director Dr. Frances Deviney, though, Texas hasn't really gotten much worse overall than it was in 2000.

"Our overall ranking in comparison to the rest of the country is about the same," she tells Unfair Park. Not that that's really something to crow about, considering where we were then. "We've stayed in the bottom third, varying a bit here and there."

But the report's not all bad news: Child death, teen violent death and juvenile crime arrests are all down both county- and state-wide, which I'm sure we can all get behind. High school attrition rates are down, and kids enrolled in Head Start and similar programs have seen a healthy bump. But as federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out during his appearance on Bloomberg Television today, Texas still has a pretty embarrassing high school graduation rate. (Even critics like Time's Andrew J. Rotherman, who is accusing Duncan of needlessly messing with Texas, still can't find much better to say about our education system than "although schools in Texas are no great shakes, they're hardly the nation's worst." Lofty praise, that.)

The KIDS COUNT report also has a lot of nebulous little factoids you could choose to read as positives or negatives, depending on the point you're trying to make about the miraculousness (or not) of Texas. Children in Dallas county ages 0-4 years who are receiving WIC went up 31.1 percent, and kids approved for free or reduced lunch is up more than 50 percent. So you could argue that: a) We've got more hungry, impoverished kids than we did in 2000, or b) We have a state system that's working better in providing nutrition to the tiny people who need it most.

"To be honest," Deviney tell us, "I think it probably says both at the same time. I think what it means is we're doing a better job of providing for our citizens and helping them meet their basic needs in a time of economic crisis. But what we really want is to provide for Texas families to get good jobs so they don't have to be on those services to begin with."

Similarly, confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect are up (they make up around 10 percent of the total child population, 7.9 percent in Dallas county). The jump in numbers could signal an increase in child abuse, or it could mean that investigators and social workers are doing a better job finding these kids.

Overall, though, these few bright-ish spots aside, the state of things if you're a child or a teen living in our state looks pretty grim.

As the report's opening essay fumes, "Recently, Texas was ranked as the best state in which to do business. But we were also recently ranked 34th in overall child well-being, 43rd in child poverty, and 48th in teen pregnancy. What does that say about our priorities?" It goes on to add, "Texas had an unprecedented increase of 163,000 children living in poverty from 2008 to 2009 alone," and notes that Texas ranks dead last in the overall number of kids who have health insurance, and is tied in last place for food insecurity.

But Deviney says she was especially shocked by the data on infant mortality in the state. "We've gotten worse, whereas the rest of the country's gotten better," she says. "It's definitely not a direction we want to go. It really makes you question what's happening."

The report's authors advocate planning for the future by funding our public education a little better. They point out that we have the second-highest birthrate in the country (comin' up right behind you, Utah!), and that maybe saving some money for all those kids to go to school might be prudent.

The study doesn't lay all the blame at Texas's feet, though; they reserve some blame for the feds too, noting that only about 10 cents of every dollar of federal money is spent on kids.

"The federal government has different priorities," Deviney says. "When it comes to trying to make sure our kids are put first, it really falls to the states. The federal government does try to help support those efforts, but that's just not where their priorities lie."

Overall, investing in children, especially children's education, has demonstrable positive effects, the study's authors say. "Looking at state-level spending and outcome indicators across the country, states that have higher per-pupil education spending also have significantly higher 4th grade reading scores, lower dropout rates, and lower teen birth rates."

Further budget cuts to public education, they say, could have devastating long-term results. "Texas children and families are currently standing at the bottom of a huge hole," says the CPPP. "A cuts-only approach to writing the state budget is like handing them a shovel when they need a ladder."

Oh, and we have a governor who wants to teach them that Adam and Eve cruised around on dinosaurs 6,000 years ago. That could be a real problem too.

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