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Report: Arkansas drops to 43rd in nation for child well-being

The annual Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 14% of Arkansas children suffered from anxiety or depression in 2020.
Lindsey Balbierz
The annual Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found 14% of Arkansas children suffered from anxiety or depression in 2020.

A new report shows Arkansas ranks toward the bottom in the U.S. for child well-being.

The annual Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the state ranks 43rd for overall child well-being, down from 39th the previous year, and below the national average in 11 of 16 indicators.

Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, says the report indicates one in every five children in Arkansas is living in poverty. He says that, coupled with a near-total ban on abortion in the state, will have long-lasting effects.

“We can expect to see future increases in child poverty, poorer maternal and mental health and greater demands on our child welfare system for abused and neglected kids; a system that is already stretched to the breaking point because of the pandemic,” Huddleston said.

The report also touches on the mental health of kids in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the percentage of children with anxiety or depression in Arkansas rising to 14%, an increase of over 67% from 2016 to 2020.

CaSandra Glover, Arkansas Advocates Health Policy Fellow, says the state need to do more to address the crisis.

“We should be looking at funding that’s targeting programs that focus on preventative and early childhood services, programs designed to center the concerns of special populations, suicide prevention services, programs that target substance use and abuse, access to high-quality service and changes within the rate reimbursement for Medicaid services,” Glover said.

The report found Arkansas had increases in the number of low birth-weight babies, overweight or obese children and teens, and the number of child and teen deaths. Laura Kellams, Arkansas Advocates’ northwest Arkansas director, said the state also continues to rank last in the nation – tied with Mississippi – for the number of births by teenage parents.

“While some teen births are planned, our research shows that the great majority are not planned. So if you want to make headway, for example, on our child poverty rate, we need to make sure that young people have the resources they need to have a family when they’re ready,” Kellams said, adding the state should have comprehensive science-based sex education in schools and ensure access to contraceptives.

The report comes ahead of a planned special session of the Arkansas Legislature to address accelerated tax cuts and school safety initiatives. Bruno Showers, senior policy analyst with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, says lawmakers should redirect their focus from accelerating tax cuts to addressing the needs of children.

“Instead of pursuing costly tax cuts to the top income tax rate, which don’t benefit the majority of Arkansas families, we should be using state revenue to help families with children make ends meet,” Showers said. “That could be refundable tax credits for families with children… expanding paid family leave to more workers, and more funding for childcare.”

Showers said, though Arkansas did improve in a number of the report’s indicators, the state’s progress was often outpaced by other parts of the country. An example, he says, is that Arkansas’ rate of teens age 16 to 19 not working or not in school improved from 11% to 9%, but that the state’s ranking nationwide dropped from 42 to 43.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.