Every child needs access to food, health care, safe and stable housing, and education. However, hundreds of thousands of children in Washington state lacked these necessities prior to the pandemic. And the ongoing fallout of the economic and public health catastrophe has brought thousands more children face-to-face with challenges ranging from lost health insurance and bare pantries to the possibility of homelessness due to eviction or foreclosure.
Each year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation measures 16 indicators of child well-being across four domains – economic well-being, education, health, and family and community context – in their annual KIDS COUNT Data Book. Because this year’s Data Book does not capture the impact of the past year (that data will not be available until next year), the findings from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (designed to measure household experiences since the onset of COVID-19) are an important supplement. Together, they help provide a fuller understanding of how children across Washington state have been faring – both before and during the pandemic.
Highlights from the latest KIDS COUNT Data Book and Household Pulse Survey data show that:
Many kids in Washington live in households that struggle to meet basic needs:
- In 2019, 197,000 children in Washington, or 12% of all children in the state, lived in households with an income below the poverty line. However, past and current racist policies that prevent communities of color from accumulating wealth – like redlining and employment discrimination – have created stark disparities among different racial categories. Twenty-four percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native children (twice the rate of kids overall) lived in households with income below the federal poverty line. That share was 23% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander kids, 22% of children of Some Other Race , 21% of Hispanic or Latino children, and 20% of Black or African American children. The intersections of racism and sexism also results in households headed by women and gender diverse  people of color being more likely to be in the lowest-income group.
- Almost one quarter (24%) of children lived in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment 2019. Unemployment and underemployment can reduce a family’s financial resources and affect a family’s ability to afford basic needs. Although the statewide unemployment rate is decreasing, it is still above pre-pandemic levels.
- Nearly three in ten kids – or 476,000 children – lived in households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing in 2019. The Household Pulse Survey data show that many families continue to be burdened by high housing costs and that housing instability has worsened during the pandemic. In the first four months of 2021, 15% of households with children had little or no confidence in their ability to pay their next rent or mortgage payment.
Improvements in health measures over the past decade are threatened by reversals:
- Six percent of babies were born with low birthweight in 2019. Low birthweight is a main contributor of infant mortality and is associated with poorer health outcomes later in life such as heart disease, hypertension, and developmental delays. Although this percentage has remained low in Washington state for the past decade, it has increased slightly since 2010, which emphasizes the need for continued work in this area.
- 54,000 children, or 3% of children in Washington, did not have health insurance as of 2019. It is great news that this has improved by over 50% compared to 2010. But there is still more work to do to ensure that all children have health care. While the Data Book shows that Washington is among states leading the nation for child health outcomes, we did see an increase of 7,000 children among those without health insurance between 2018 and 2019. This is a troubling reversal of the steady progress made in the last decade.
Many children face barriers to accessing early education programs and adequate technology for learning:
- In 2019, more than half (54%) of children ages three and four did not attend school. High-quality preschool programs can improve kids’ readiness for kindergarten, social-emotional learning, and self-regulatory development. These improvements are greater for children who come from lower-income families and are dual language learners.
- Household Pulse Survey data shows that during the first few months of 2021, 8% of households with children in grades K-12 did not consistently have internet and a computer or digital device available for children to use for educational purposes. That share is nearly three times higher for Black and African American children.
Findings in the Data Book show that states cannot simply return to a pre-pandemic level of support for children and families. That would shortchange millions of kids and fail to address persistent racial and ethnic disparities. The historic legislation passed over the past year in our state – including the Working Families Tax Credit, a capital gains wealth tax that helps fund the Fair Start for Kids Act, and improvements to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program – makes clear that our elected representatives can invest in kids, families, and communities to improve living standards and give children the chance to thrive, even during a crisis. As we continue to navigate this crisis, we will need further bold action that prioritizes equitable solutions. The choices ahead will determine whether a recovery can be sustained.
Key recommendations from the KIDS COUNT Data Book include:
- At the federal level, Congress should make the expansion of the child tax credit permanent. The American Rescue Plan increased both the amount and reach of the child tax credit – temporarily ending a policy that excluded or reduced support for children in families with low or no income. Federal leaders should make these changes permanent in this year’s recovery legislation.
- State and local governments should prioritize the recovery of hard-hit communities of color. Even as some higher-income, majority white households are beginning to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, policymakers in Washington state must ensure that protections like the statewide eviction moratorium remain in place to avoid an impending wave of evictions and increased homelessness. They must also ensure that rental assistance and other forms of relief are accessible to communities of color disproportionately struggling to make ends meet.
- States should expand income support that helps families care for their children. Permanently extending unemployment insurance eligibility to contract, gig, and other excluded workers and creating a system accessible to undocumented workers would benefit parents and children. So would reducing barriers to Washington state’s TANF program – which, despite improvements made in the recent legislative session, currently reaches a fraction of families facing deep poverty.
- State lawmakers should maintain and expand access to affordable health care, including by allowing dental therapists (who currently practice on Tribal lands in Washington) to serve more communities who can’t find affordable oral health care. While state lawmakers this session created a task force to study how dental therapists can expand access to affordable, preventive care, they should fully authorize the use of dental therapy to reach people with low incomes, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and rural communities.
- State lawmakers should ensure that the capital gains excise tax is implemented to support critical investments in early learning, which is foundational to children’s success in school and life. Legislators rightly listened to community voices and passed this policy into law, and they must continue to defend this law despite legal challenges.
About KIDS COUNT in Washington
KIDS COUNT in Washington is a partnership of the Children’s Alliance and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, made possible by support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It pursues measurable improvements in child outcomes through equitable public policy measures. For more information, visit www.kidscountwa.org.