On Monday, March 9, the Louisiana Legislature will introduce several new members to the floor, the result of having experienced 40% turnover during our elections last fall. New legislators present fresh opportunities to acknowledge and respond to our collective responsibility to our children. We as citizens have the power to ensure that our children are at the top of the Legislature’s priorities as critical decisions are made about our shared future.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual inquiry funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that measures the well-being of children in all 50 states from birth through young adulthood. Our organization, Agenda for Children, has served as the Louisiana KIDS COUNT grantee since the project’s inception, spending the past 30 years collecting and analyzing data and informing the public about our state’s children and their families.
Louisiana begins this decade similarly to how it began the previous two: at the bottom in national rankings of overall child well-being. In 2019, Louisiana ranked 49th overall. We’ve never seen our state rank higher than 46th in the Data Book’s 30-year run.
One bright spot is that we now rank seventh lowest nationally for “teens abusing alcohol or drugs,” putting us within reach of states like Pennsylvania and Mississippi, which are tied for lowest. Sadly, it will take an incredible amount of work to improve on other indicators, such as “children living in poverty.” We would need to lift 192,700 children out of poverty to move from our current ranking of 50th to first.
The dawn of a new decade and a new legislative session has spurred a sense of hope in us. It is in this spirit that we are releasing a new report, “The Roadmap to Child Well-Being,” which builds upon our KIDS COUNT analysis to provide Louisianans with evidenced-based, high-impact recommendations on how our state can fast track its improvement on 16 measures of child and family well-being.
Louisiana has made bold strides before, and it paid off. Our state has been a national leader in using innovative practices to expand health insurance coverage to more children. As a result, 97% of children in Louisiana have access to health insurance, an all-time high. What could be said of our other rankings if we took the same decisive action to raise the minimum wage, enact universal behavioral and mental health screenings for K-12 students, increase access to comprehensive sex education, and increase subsidies for all publicly-funded early learning seats to market rates? We believe it would significantly improve our standing on child poverty, child and teen death rates, teen birthrates, and number of fourth-graders reading on grade level, dramatically improving the well-being of our state’s children.
Improving outcomes for our children should be of utmost importance for Louisianans. The phrase “our children are our future” rings exceptionally true, given that 78% of our current residents were born here, a higher percentage than in any other state. Our people have staying power — and our children are in crisis. The time to deliberate has passed. We must act with urgency and intention.
This road map is a guide for all of us. By the end of this decade our children will be old enough to enter the workforce — and likely in Louisiana. They will be tasked with innovating, designing and driving the future of our state.
Will they be ready? Will we have done enough to prepare them?
Kenny Francis is director of policy and advocacy with Agenda for Children.