Taken by themselves, the numbers are benumbing enough – a recent national report indicates almost one-third (30 percent) of Louisiana children currently live in poverty conditions. That rate leads the nation. It also translates to 351,000 Louisiana children – and half of those live in what is defined by researchers as “extreme poverty,” where annual family incomes are less than 50 percent of the established poverty level.
Taken by themselves, the numbers are benumbing
enough – a recent national report indicates almost one-third (30
percent) of Louisiana children currently live in poverty conditions.
That rate leads the nation. It also translates to
351,000 Louisiana children – and half of those live in what is defined
by researchers as “extreme poverty,” where annual family incomes are
less than 50 percent of the established poverty level.
In turn, a full half of all Louisiana children live
in low-income households, where the annual income is less than 200
percent of the established federal poverty level.
And by the way, that established poverty level is
not high. In 2003, the federal poverty line was $14,824 for a family of
one adult and two children. For a family of two adults and two
children, the line rose to a meager $18,660.
Raw, hard numbers to be sure, but what is even more
disturbing is the truth behind the numbers. Louisiana is losing her
children and her future – and losing them fast.
The raw, hard truth is that poverty is just the door through which a whole range of problems enter.
“Compared to their more affluent peers, kids from
low-income families are more likely to suffer from preventable
illnesses, fail in school, become teenage parents and become involved
with the justice system,” a recent report on children in the United
States notes. “As a result, these young people frequently reach
adulthood without the necessary tools, experiences and connections to
That is not good news for the state that ranks worst
in the nation for child poverty and next-to-worst for the overall
well-being of kids (ahead of only Mississippi). And the two states are
not worst by a little bit. When the overall well-being of children is
graphed, 13 states are shown above average, 13 states are below average
and the rest are clustered in a tight middle.
The graph is a stairstep type of line as the above
average begin the top-left-to-bottom-right descent to the below
average. But something happens to the stairs near the bottom.
There is a sizable – “watch that step” – type of
drop off from state 47 (West Virginia) to number 48 (Alabama).
Then, comes state 49 (Louisiana) and 50
(Mississippi). How is one to describe that drop off? Suffice to say, it
would be wise to use a glide parachute – or rappelling gear.
“Louisiana is getting worse faster than the rest of
the country,” said William O’Hare, a researcher for the Annie E. Casey
Foundation, which recently released its annual Kids Count report on the
well-being of children in the nation.
Indeed, in the 10 areas cited in the report,
Louisiana grew worse in eight of them in the most recent year of
record. Also, the state ranked dead last in four of the categories.
“We’re moving in the wrong direction,” admitted
Shannon Johnson, a worker with the Agenda for Children agency in New
Orleans. “We absolutely have to look at child poverty and the problems
facing children in the state.”
So does the rest of the nation, the report indicates.
The Kids Count report shows 13 million children
living in poverty in the United States in 2003, representing an
increase of half a million kids from three years earlier. In addition,
five out of 10 well-being indicators worsened in the nation during that
In a key area, 4 million children were living in
low-income households where no adult worked in 2003, an increase of 1
million kids from the year 2000.
That figure especially is disappointing, coming on
the heels of a period of improvement from 1996 to 2001, as new welfare
laws took effect and the economy grew. “Since then, the figure (of kids
in low-income, non-working homes) has been rising once again, and this
has largely been unacknowledged by policymakers or the media,” O’Hare
The Kids Count report cites four key factors (or
employment barriers) behind the inability of so many parents and adults
to find work – substance abuse, domestic violence, prior incarceration
and debilitating depression.
The resulting poverty obviously impacts children – but the contributing factors also have crippling effects.
For instance, substance abuse can devastate
children, leading to abuse, poverty and/or neglect, the Kids Count
report notes. “And in 2001, an estimated 6 million children lived with
at least one parent who abused or was dependent on drugs or alcohol,”
Children also suffer profoundly from domestic violence, the Kids Count study explains.
“It is estimated that between 3.3 million and
10 million children witness domestic violence annually, and research
shows that just being exposed to violence can have serious detrimental
effects on child development,” it says.
The impact of prior incarceration of a parent or
caretaker on children is great as well, contributing to lower
self-esteem, depression, emotional withdrawal and disruptive or
delinquent behavior, the Kids Count report notes. And a lot of kids are
impacted. Between 1980 and 2003, the number of adults incarcerated in
the nation soared – from 504,000 to 2.1 million. The rate of increase
was even higher among women, who often have sole custody of children.
In 1999, more than 1.5 million children in the
United States had a parent in prison. At least the same number had a
parent who had been incarcerated or was on parole. Altogether, the Kids
Count report estimates 3.2 million children were experiencing the
effects of incarceration.
Of course, Louisiana knows that truth.
It easily leads the nation in incarceration rates,
with nearly 37,000 people in the state prison system alone.
Finally, in addition to contributing to
unemployment, depression of adults – especially prevalent among
low-income women – “can put children at heightened risk of developing
behavioral problems, school difficulties and physical health problems,
as well as depression and a variety of other psychiatric illnesses,”
the Kids Count report says.
Of course, various agencies and programs are working to make a dent in the critical numbers.
But much remains to be done, especially in the
South. Indeed, if one looks at the bottom fourth of states in terms of
well-being of children, only three are not in the Deep South – West
Virginia, Arizona and New Mexico. All other Deep South states are well
This is especially true of Louisiana.
Consider the 10 categories:
• Percentage of low-birthweight babies. The national
average for 2002 was 7.8 percent, a slight worsening from 2000. For
Louisiana, the rate was 10.4 percent, also a slight worsening in two
years. Overall, only four states improved in that area in those two
years. Five states went unchanged – and the rest worsened.
• Infant mortality rate. Nationally, the 2002 rate
was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, relatively unchanged from 2000.
In Louisiana, the rate was 10.3 deaths, a jump from nine in 2000. In
the two-year period, 27 states improved in that area, 21 worsened and
two went unchanged.
• Child death rate. Nationally, 21 children (ages
1-14) per every 100,000 died in 2002, a slight increase from 2000. In
Louisiana, the rate was much higher – 35 per year, an increase of three
from 2000. For the two-year period, 24 states improved in that area, 15
states worsened and 11 others went unchanged.
• Teenage death rate. In 2002, 68 teenagers (ages
15-19) for every 100,000 died as a result of accident, homicide or
suicide in the United States, a slight worsening from 2000. In
Louisiana, the rate was 100 teenagers a year, much worse than the rate
of 85 reported in 2000. For that same two-year period, 23 states
improved in the area, 25 others worsened and two went unchanged.
• Teenage birth rate. An average of 43 births per
1,000 females (ages 15-17) occurred in the United States in 2002, an
improvement from the rate of 48 in 2000. In Louisiana, the rate
was 58, an improvement from 62 in 2000. Overall, in the two-year
period, 46 states improved in the area, while two states worsened and
two went unchanged.
• Percentage of teenagers who drop out of high
school. Nationally, 8 percent of teenagers (ages 16-19) were high
school dropouts in 2003, an improvement from 11 percent in 2000. In
Louisiana, the rate was 12 percent, slightly worse than in 2000. For
the three-year period, 38 states improved in the area, nine worsened
and three went unchanged.
• Percentage of teenagers not attending school and
not working. Nationwide, the 2003 rate was 9 percent, unchanged from
2000. In Louisiana, the rate was 14 percent, slightly better than 2000.
Twenty-three states improved in that area from 2000 to 2003, while 16
states worsened and 11 went unchanged.
• Percentage of children living in families where no
parent has full-time, year-round employment. Nationally, the 2003 rate
was 33 percent, a slight worsening from 2000. In Louisiana, the rate
was 40 percent, slightly worse than 2000. For the three-year time
period, 16 states improved in the area, 27 worsened and seven went
• Percentage of children in poverty. Nationwide, the
2003 figure stood at 18 percent, slightly worse than in 2000. In
Louisiana, the rate was 30 percent, up from 27 percent in 2000. From
2000 to 2003, 12 states improved in the area, 25 states worsened and 13
• Percentage of children in single-parent homes.
Thirty percent of children lived in single-parent homes in the United
States in 2003, unchanged from 2000. In Louisiana, the rate was 41
percent, up from 38 percent in 2000. For the three-year time period, 17
states improved in that area, 25 states worsened and eight went
All in all, for Louisiana, the numbers add up to a challenge that cannot be exaggerated.
Of course, the Kids Count book offers a range of
recommendations, primarily related to state agencies and programs and
how to make them more efficient and effective.
But as observers note, it will take much more than
that to solve the problem, including citizens who write legislators and
other public officials, who engage in grassroots efforts, who
participate in local help programs, who give to fund ongoing efforts
and who create their own initiatives to make a difference for those in
need where they are.
As one observer noted, “It will take everyone working together – and, probably, then some.”
(Written by LBM Associate Editor C. Lacy Thompson,
this article includes details from the 2005 Kids Count report by the
Annie E. Casey Foundation and from a July 27 article in The Times
Picayune newspaper in New Orleans.)