For decades, a wealth of research has taught us that our nation is at its strongest when we make sound investments in our children and young people. Now, new data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2018 KIDS COUNT® Data Book confirm what history has already shown: failing to invest in children and families deprives our state and nation of a robust future.

The 29th edition of the newly-released Data Book contains two critical lessons for Connecticut. First, strong showings in early childhood education and care, as well as children’s health, demonstrate that targeted, long-standing investments can have significant impacts.

Second, a history of disinvestment in communities of color and other marginalized populations, which have fueled egregious disparities in the state, indicate that slipping or stagnant measures of child well-being statewide could be the “canary in the coal mine” unless Connecticut takes bold steps to improve employment opportunities and revitalize the safety net that lifts underserved communities.

Consider the bright spots in our measures of child well-being. This year’s Data Book finds that Connecticut continued to outrank many other states in education, leading the nation with the highest percent of children aged 3 and 4 who are enrolled in school, and third-highest share of fourth graders reading at grade level. Children’s health is similarly an area of strength for Connecticut, ranking seventh nationally, with the second-lowest child and teen death rate and only 3 percent of children lacking health insurance in 2016.

These high ranks are proof that state and federal policies can move the needle for our children. This year, amid budgetary constraints, our state upheld its commitment to children’s health and education and maintained funding for health insurance for low-income children and their parents, along with critical childcare subsidies and the Office of Early Childhood.

At the state level, preserving the Care4Kids program, Connecticut’s primary child care subsidy for low-to-moderate-income working families, will allow the state to make continued progress in expanding access to high-quality early childhood education for all. Federally, moving forward in expanding access to health insurance and care is necessary to sustain the prior achievements of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid expansions and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Still, we must not allow these strong outcomes to obscure the persistent disparities in the well-being of Connecticut’s children. Where other states saw promising declines in the concentration of child poverty, there was no year-to-year change to the 9 percent of children living in high-poverty areas in Connecticut. With 34 percent of children living in families facing high housing cost burdens, Connecticut is one of the worst states for housing costs.

While communities with higher rates of poverty — including Bridgeport, Hartford, and New Haven — have a higher share of households who pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, housing costs burdened families exist even in more moderate-income towns, per analysis of American Community Survey data by the Connecticut Association for Human Services.

Certainly, wealth and income inequality are key parts of the story here; economic gaps between the have-a-lots and have-nots have been particularly sharp in Connecticut. Between 1979 and 2013, the share of income held by the top 1 percent reached nearly 30 percent in Connecticut, compared to 20 percent nationwide, according to a 2016 report by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. However, the deep disparities facing children of color as well as those in low-income households also show what happens when we disinvest from communities in need of shared resources and the attention of policy makers.

For decades, the share of state spending dedicated to young people has diminished, from nearly 40 percent two decades ago to just under 30 percent today, according to analysis from Connecticut Voices for Children. This decline has most impacted children of color, who experience worse outcomes across all four of the child well-being domains assessed by the Casey Foundation. Now, data from the new report suggest that Connecticut communities are more broadly feeling the force of a precipitous decline in funding for the agencies and programs that serve young people and low-income families.

Supporting low-income families is essential to ensuring the development and success of our children. Passing legislation to support working families, including paid family leave, limits on “on-call” shift scheduling and a meaningful increase in the minimum wage, will give parents the tools they need to support their children. Similarly, funding greater investments in maternal and infant health, including access to prenatal care, and expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit can help ensure that we lift communities most in need of vital resources.

Policy makers have the power to meaningfully advance the potential of our children and young people. To have the greatest impact, our legislators must learn from the past to improve future policy. In Connecticut, the data shows that sustained investments in education and health can help children thrive from an early age. At the same time, failure to invest in historically marginalized communities furthers disparities in economic security and threatens the prosperity of all.

To reverse a troubling slide in the well-being of our future, Connecticut must first carve a new path forward by lifting underserved communities through policies that support the health and economic stability of families and children.

Kayla Goldfarb is a policy analyst with the Connecticut Association for Human Services. She resides in Hartford.

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