The numbers, as always, tell a story.
Some of the numbers are better than past years. Many are unchanged, showing again that the path toward improving the well-being of Hoosier children is long and fraught with legislative, bureaucratic and financial pitfalls.
The 2021 Kids Count Data Book, published each year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, draws from a wealth of state and federal government data to produce a detailed look at children’s well-being in the 50 states. It focuses on four areas: economic well-being, health, education, and family and community.
In Indiana, according to the report released in partnership with the Indiana Youth Institute, the number of children in poverty is slowly dropping. Fewer children have parents who lack secure employment.
More high school seniors are graduating. A greater number of children now have access to health insurance.
Those are the positives.
Much of the Indiana portion of the report reiterates what earlier publications have clearly stated, retelling a story that’s not changed much over the years. The state is not the worst, the aging narrative says, but it continues to lag and miss opportunities for betterment.
The percentage of low birth-weight babies (8.2%) born in Indiana continues to rise. Child and teen deaths per 100,000 residents (29) have increased.
About 37% of the state’s children and teens are overweight or obese, up from 33% in 2020.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most extraordinary crisis to hit families in decades,” Annie E. Casey Foundation President and CEO Lisa Hamilton said in a statement announcing the release of the report last month. “Deliberate policy decisions can rescue families, and we’re already seeing the beginnings of that. Policymakers can use this moment to repair both the damage wrought by … the pandemic and long-standing inequities.”
Indiana ranks 29th overall – the same as last year – for child well-being, putting it in company with neighbor Michigan at 28 and Missouri at 30. Ohio ranks 31st and Kentucky 37th.
Massachusetts tops the list, and Mississippi ranks last.
A way to highlight differences in states’ priorities, the report is an annual appeal to policymakers to strengthen social safety nets and “weave in new safeguards for children, families and communities.” Some of that work has been done at the federal level, the 50-page report says, with billions of dollars in stimulus money sent directly to families and extra funding funneled to schools.
Fort Wayne Community Schools, for example, will receive nearly $101 million from the American Rescue Plan Act – a cash infusion the 30,000-student district is using to pay for things such as summer school to blunt the negative effects of the pandemic on learning.
Among the suggestions in the Kids Count report: Make permanent the expansion of the federal child tax credit, which beginning this month will provide needed money – up to $3,600 for parents with kids younger than 6 and $3,000 for older children – for families.
States should prioritize measures to ensure healthy populations, Hamilton wrote in the report’s foreword.
Part of that includes funding public health, an area where Indiana continues to rank low.
United Health Foundation in recent years has ranked the state 49th out of 50 in public health spending. Unsurprisingly, its 2020 America’s Health Rankings report shows Indiana came in at 48th – tied with Wisconsin – on that list, with $55 in funding for each person in the state. Nevada ($50) was last, and Alaska ($289) was No. 1.
The national average for public health funding is $91.
Things are unlikely to change. Public health experts and doctors have been complaining for years about a lack of money from the state that could be used to fund things such as educational efforts to target obesity or other problems.
Without that support, the challenge of moving the needle on negative health outcomes highlighted by the Kids Count report is falling to doctors, nonprofits and social service agencies.
It’s an uphill fight, but one leaders of those groups can win – someday.
In Allen County, the Children’s Health Collaborative is taking that fight to wherever it’s needed.
The collaborative, a part of the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, once billed itself as “a local think tank” studying needs such as affordable housing, child care and mental health. It has morphed into an action-based agency under Director Antoinette Francher-Donald, who was hired last year after working for the Fort Wayne Urban League.
The mission now, according to its website, is “to develop multi-disciplinary, integrated solutions to improve the health and well-being of our children that creates a pathway to prosperity for all youth in Allen County.”
An avid runner and ebullient leader with a clear desire to get – and keep – kids healthy, Francher-Donald is a former marketing specialist who is busy these days contacting schools, faith-based organizations such as the Euell A. Wilson Center and other groups to partner on promoting wellness and programs designed to ensure healthy living.
With an annual budget of about $100,000, she knows funding won’t go far. She’s working with those groups to stretch the dollars by implementing simple programs to change the behaviors of children and families who need help learning about healthy foods and exercise.
“This is (an) effort to bring private funding to public health,” said Amy Dawson, a physician who helped organize the collaborative and now works as a consultant for the organization.
Examples of simple, behavior-modifying efforts include a well-being tracker on which users can make note of how many fruits and vegetables they’re eating. A portion can be used to track minutes watching TV or playing video games. There is a section to track physical activity and list goals.
And those aren’t just for kids. Francher-Donald and others want parents and other family members to participate.
“We want to be a model for kids,” she said in a recent interview. “If our kids see us getting up, taking walks – if our kids see us eating an apple – it becomes normalized.”
Dr. Duane Hougendobler is Parkview Health’s chief of pediatrics and said he believes improving health outcomes for children is a team effort.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then that village can also help keep the child healthy. If parents are taking walks and eating healthy, kids see that.
Being proactive now will lead to better health later, Hougendobler said.
“We’ve got to get out of the mentality of ‘If I break it, they’ll fix it,’ ” he said.
Hougendobler acknowledges that making those ideas stick is difficult.
Once patients and parents leave his office, they’re largely on their own – though he has provided referrals for obesity clinics and assistance toward free or reduced-price memberships to agencies such as the YMCA.
That’s where the Children’s Health Collaborative can help.
“We’re starting to grow some wings, in some ways,” Francher-Donald said.
Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said efforts to improve health outcomes for children start now – before things like sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits lead to obesity and health complications.
“Especially for kids – if they get off on a poor track, their risk to contract disease (later) is much, much higher,” he said. “Education is a piece (of changing) that.”
The proof is in the numbers.
Matthew LeBlanc is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.