Life getting harder for kids on isle


By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK

Stephens Media

In a trend that has worsened over the past years, children in Hawaii are more likely to be living in poverty, have parents lacking secure employment and are living in households with a high housing cost burden, according to a national survey released today.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book includes findings showing no improvement in the economic situation for families in Hawaii — and in most states — particularly moderate- and low-income families. While the recession reportedly ended in the summer of 2009, many families have continued to struggle in its wake and there’s an increasing poverty among children, bringing more reasons for concern, said Laura Speer, Kids Count national coordinator.

The newest data book, available at kidscount.org, provides a yearly scorecard revealing how each state and the nation is doing on improving the lives of children and families. For 20 years, the Baltimore-based foundation has provided this data and trend analysis in an effort to help policymakers in their assessment of how better to serve their communities. It also seeks to “raise the visibility of the needs and problems of coming generations,” generating not only more public awareness, but also strategies to address effectively these issues, Speer said.

Poverty is defined as an income of $21,756 for a family of two adults and two children. According to the 2010 numbers, 22 percent of children in America live in poverty, a nearly 20 percent increase from a decade ago. In Hawaii, 41,000 of the state’s kids — or 14 percent — lived in poverty, which is an 8 percent increase from 2000, Speer said.

When it comes to measuring Hawaii’s economic well-being conditions, the state ranks 31st, Speer said. In 2010, 30 percent of Hawaii children under 18 had parents without secure employment, an increase from 26 percent in 2008. Hawaii also has one of the highest rates of children living in households with a housing cost burden, where more than 30 percent of monthly household income is spent on rent, mortgage, taxes, insurance, or related expenses. This is a 9 percent increase, from 37 percent in 2005 to 46 percent in 2010.

Overall, Hawaii ranks 24th in 16 key indicators of child well-being organized into four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community, Speer said. The core indicators include percent of low birth-weight babies; infant mortality rate; child death rate; teen birth rate; percent of children living with parents who do not have full-time, year-round employment; percent of teens who are high school dropouts; percent of teens not attending school and not working; percent of children in poverty and percent of families with children headed by a single-parent.

“When compared with other states, Hawaii ranks somewhere in the middle on overall child well-being, indicating that much more can and needs to be done to create a better future for Hawaii’s children,” said Grace Fong, interim director of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center of the Family, which serves as the state’s Kids Count affiliate. “We need to focus our attention on the future by strengthening family economic opportunity and building supportive communities that nurture our children and families.”

Hawaii ranked 21st in health well-being, Spears said. The child and teen death rate and the percent of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs statewide worsened during the period examined. The state showed little to no change in recent years, regarding the percentage of low-birth weight babies and children without health insurance. However, it is worth noting Hawaii has among the lowest rates of children, ages 18 and under, without health insurance. Only 12,000 children statewide, or 4 percent, didn’t have insurance in 2009, while the national average was more than double that, she added.

In the area of family and community well-being, pecentages regarding children in single-parent families, teen birth rate, and children living in high-poverty areas all increased. The percent of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma has shown a slight improvement.

There was measurable progress in education. For example, more 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschool toward the end of the decade than in the preceding years. The percent of high school students not graduating on time has also increased, though slightly, in recent years. The percent of fourth graders not proficient in reading and the percent of eighth graders not proficient in math both decreased between 2005 and 2011.

“We’re encouraged by the gains made in the education domain in recent years, especially the improvements seen in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math proficiency,” said Ivette Rodriguez Stern, Hawaii Kids Count director. “However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. When compared with other states, Hawaii ranks near the bottom third in the education domain.”

Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at clucas-zenk@westhawaiitoday.com.