For 25 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been compiling valuable information on the well-being of children, both nationally and in individual states. While the foundation's annual Kids Count reports have found some areas of progress, the overall trend of child welfare in Michigan is discouraging. The rate of child poverty in our state has soared in the last quarter century, while we continue to lag educationally. It's a sobering picture.
In the latest Kids Count report issued last week, Michigan ranked 32nd in the nation in overall child well-being, down one position from last year. That puts us behind all our Great Lakes neighbors - Minnesota (fifth place), Wisconsin (13th), Illinois (20th), Ohio (24th) and Indiana (27th). Much of our poor rating is due to the effect of the Great Recession, which struck earlier and lasted longer in Michigan than anywhere else in the nation. Twenty-five percent of children in the state live in poverty, according to the Kids Count report - a 39 percent increase since 1990. In that same period, the number of kids living in single-parent households has jumped 30 percent while the total living in "unaffordable housing" (defined as a home where rent or mortgage consumes more than 30 percent of income) has risen 36 percent. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of children in Michigan are growing up in families with serious economic handicaps.
Not all the news on our children is bleak. In fact, some of the public health advances are extremely impressive. Kids Count found that the teen death rate in Michigan has dropped 41 percent in the last 25 years, a decrease attributed to the restrictions of the state's graduated driver's license law. In the same period, the number of teens giving birth fell from 59 per 1,000 to 29 per 1,000 - a 56 percent improvement. And 28 percent more 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool, even before the $130 million in new state funding in next year's budget.
It's education that really drags down Michigan's rating. Kids Count puts Michigan 39th nationally in education, with low ratings for such key measures as fourth-grade reading, eighth-grade math and on-time graduation. "Michigan has been running in place on education, while other states race ahead," said Gilda Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, the state affiliate in the Kids Count program.
There are no quick or easy solutions for Michigan's children. The economy is improving in Michigan but at a frustratingly slow pace, with many families disconnected from the recovery. More money for public education would help, but dollars alone don't help kids learn; money must be carefully targeted to help children in key skills at key times, so their entire school career is not locked into a pattern of continuing substandard achievement. One strategy we've long advocated is reinstating the state Earned Income Tax Credit - a key tax break for the working poor - to its pre-2012 level of 20 percent of the federal credit.
More than any single action, we could use a change of priorities among policymakers at all levels in Michigan. "Our children are our future" is one of the most cliched and obvious phrases around, and one of the most widely ignored. How often do we actually make children - not just our own children, or the children of our friends and neighbors - a true priority? The first question behind every bill, every government program, every budget appropriation should not be whether this is good for business, good for the bureaucracy, good for campaign contributors or even good for an elected official's core constituency. It's whether it's good for children. That requires a very different mindset, a much longer-term outlook than the one most of us employ now.
Too many kids in Michigan are starting their lives with serious disadvantages they may never be able to overcome. Improving their well-being has to be at the top of our state's to-do list.