Connecticut improved its national ranking in childhood well-being but still has progress to make, particularly in housing and issues related to economic security, according to an annual report released today.
Connecticut was ranked 7th in the nation in this year’s Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count, up from 8th last year. The Kids Count examines child well-being by state, based on 16 indicators across four broad categories: health, education, family and community, and economic well-being.
Despite high rankings in several categories, including education-related indicators and the number of children with health insurance, many families are still struggling with issues such as food insecurity and high costs of housing, said Emily Byrne, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children.
“We were slow from the great recession, and lower levels of investment in family economic security were made over the years,” Byrne said. “That has kept Connecticut from being a place where all families can thrive. The investments can range, but as a starting point, it’s connecting parents to good jobs and figuring out ways to offset the high cost of raising children.”
Connecticut Voices for Children is the state-level group that worked on the Annie E. Casey report. The report is based on 2019 and 2020 data; some education data collection was disrupted when schools shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state ranked third in the nation in the education category. It had high rankings in keeping kids engaged in school or work and in preschool attendance.
It ranked eighth in health, 14th in family and community and 20th in economic well-being.
Although it’s ranked first in the nation in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in school, advocates at Connecticut Voices for Children marked that category as one to watch.
“The pandemic really rocked the early care industry,” Byrne said.
It’s something researchers are watching at the national level, too, said Leslie Boissiere, vice president for external affairs at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Other points marked as “need to watch” included childhood poverty, Connecticut’s ranks for fourth-grade reading proficiency and eighth-grade math proficiency. The state ranks 12th in terms of childhood poverty and fourth in reading and math.
Connecticut’s lowest ranking was in the housing cost burden category, where it ranked 44th in the country, a drop of two places from last year’s report.
“I know when we compare the state of Connecticut to many of the other states, we are doing reasonably well," said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, co-chair of the children’s committee and vice chair of the housing committee.
“Having said that, I’ve always said we need to compare Connecticut with Connecticut, and that’s why I am not satisfied with the numbers at this time.”
Housing affordability has long been a problem in Connecticut. The state lacks about 85,400 units that are affordable and available to those with extremely low incomes, according to data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Although the numbers have improved from 42% of children living in households with a high housing cost burden in 2008-12 to 34% in 2016-20, other states have seen more wage growth than Connecticut, according to a Connecticut Voices news release.
In recent months, the costs of rent and houses have risen, and in a state that already has higher costs of living, the impact on families is substantial, Byrne said.
Experts have attributed some of the state’s lack of affordable housing to local zoning ordinances that make it difficult for developers to build multi-family housing, which tends to be more affordable for people with low incomes.
Efforts to implement statewide zoning reform during the last legislative session fell short.
“I think it just speaks to the overall cautionary tale of Connecticut’s Kids Count data … In the places that we’re doing well, that’s great, but it’s relative to the rest of the country,” Byrne said. “If everybody is doing well and we just maintain the status quo, in comparison, we’re doing worse. Our ranking is going to fall.”
Anwar said housing is central to the effort to improve outcomes for children. Where kids live determines where they go to school. It also affects their long-term health outcomes.
“We need to diversify the homes in all towns and also improve access to many of the towns to have better access to people of all backgrounds,” Anwar said. “And having that balance helps strengthen communities.”
Sen. Kevin Kelly, the Republican Senate leader and ranking member of the children’s committee, said the answer lies in finding ways to increase wages and bring more high-paying jobs to Connecticut.
“I have always and often talked about how we need to have a better economy in the state of Connecticut, one that actually can support six-figure jobs,” Kelly said.
Young people need more job training and connections to employers, he added.
Gov. Ned Lamont’s initiative to strengthen childhood lead poisoning standards, in Connecticut in addition to $30 million in federal funds set aside to help alleviate the problem, is an important piece of improving outcomes for children, Byrne said.
“Lead is pervasive in older homes, so one way to get more affordable housing units back online is by rehabbing the existing affordable housing stock,” she added.
Mental health emergency
The national report was largely focused on mental health and kids’ heightened needs for care because of the pandemic.
Children across the country were more likely to experience anxiety or depression during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic than previously. About 7.3 million kids experienced these problems between 2016 and 2020, compared to 5.8 million previously, according to the press release.
In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on a national youth mental health crisis.
Even before the pandemic, Connecticut’s young people had higher rates of anxiety and depression than the national average, and the rates have worsened since the pandemic, according to the press release.
“All of these basic needs that every child should be able to rely on has a direct impact on their overall well being and in particular on the conditions of their mental health,” Boissiere said.
The Connecticut legislature prioritized children’s mental health during the session, introducing three sweeping bills that aim to address mental health in early childhood and schools. They also funded mental health services in medical centers, educational facilities and the community.
But many of those services haven’t reached the community yet and aren’t reflected in the data.
“We’ve made historic investments this past legislative session, and I think that’s great,” Byrne said. “But those resources need to be pushed to the communities now.”
Legislators said they’re hopeful when these are rolled out, the state will see improvements.
“Here’s the thing is when somebody reaches out for help in the area of mental health, it's a window,” Kelly said. “And you want to make sure that when they ask for help, it’s readily available.”
And in addition to the three bills, Anwar said he wants to see the state continue to invest in improving children’s lives.
“There's no room for resting on these issues,” he said.