Despite the large representation of Southeastern Kentucky counties in the lowest rankings for overall child well-being, the region seems to have shown slight improvement in the child poverty epidemic that has been plaguing the area for decades, according to statistics from the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2013 County Data Book released this week.
The Kentucky Youth Advocates began the KIDS COUNT Project over 20 years ago as a way to monitor the well-being of Kentucky’s children. This year, the group has taken a new approach by ranking counties’ overall well-being, basing that ranking on four areas, including economic security, education, health, and family and community growth.
Perry County was ranked 109th out of 120 counties; the majority of the counties in the bottom 20 rankings — 18 of them — were in Eastern Kentucky, including Owsley County at 115, Wolfe at 114, and Harlan at 106.
In 2012, the data book showed the majority of southeastern counties saw average child poverty rates for the years between 2006 and 2010 exceeding 30 percent. Perry County recorded a 42.1 percent rate, Breathitt saw a 41.9 percent rate, Knott had a 33.5 percent, and Owsley, the highest ranking in the region, came in at 48.4 percent.
Though those average rates still sit above 30 percent for the aggregate years between 2007 and 2011, many have decreased, with Perry showing a 39.9 percent rate, Owsley with 46.5 percent, Breathitt with 37.5 percent, and Knott with 31.1 percent. The state average for that same period was 25.1 percent.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, a family of four with an income at or below $23,550 lived below the federal poverty level in 2013.
An opening essay in the data book lists possible ways to improve the well-being of children in the state, including investments in early childhood education.
According to the data book, most Southeastern Kentucky preschool-aged children do not attend preschool. Perry, Breathitt, and Letcher counties all had rates of over 65 percent, with most other counties in the Kentucky River Region having rates over 45 percent. Rates for college and career readiness for high schoolers for the 2011-12 school year were also subpar. Perry County had a 28.2 percent college and career readiness rate, the lowest in the region; Leslie County, however, showed a rate of 50 percent. The state average was around 47 percent.
“When kids aren’t prepared for school, there is a good chance they will not catch up in later grades,” the essay read.
The data book also shows that the majority of children in Southeastern Kentucky live in high poverty areas; Owsley and Wolfe counties even showed rates of 100 percent in this area. Perry County’s rate was just over 87 percent.
“Children in poverty face substantial, long-term risks that stifle opportunities for later success,” the essay read. “Giving children opportunities to succeed is essential if our state is to reach its potential. These data illuminate the areas that demand our attention, and the report recommends proven strategies to intervene. If followed, all Kentucky children will have a better shot at success.”