In election years politicians often talk about children as our future.
If that's true — and who could argue? — two stories last week provided a Dickensian picture of Kentucky a decade hence:
■ Only one in four children is ready for kindergarten, the Kentucky Board of Education reported.
■ Antipsychotic drugs given to poor children under Kentucky's Medicaid program jumped 270 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a report prepared by the University of Kentucky's Center for Business and Economic Research. Minority children received these drugs at three times the rate of white children, and the incidence of prescribing varies wildly from region to region, county to county.
The UK report also gave another glimpse of our future, showing that during the period studied, narcotics were prescribed to adult Medicaid patients more than any other class of drug.
Report author Michael Childress wrote that counties with high narcotic use are also home to poor educational attainment, high unemployment and poverty.
Education Commissioner Terry Holliday noted that kindergarten readiness is critical to meeting the goal of teaching children to read by third grade. If they can't read then, "their odds of being able to graduate from high school are greatly diminished," he said.
So, let's talk about the future. Are we doomed to this awful fate?
Yes, certainly, if nothing changes. Kentucky's leaders can continue playing around the edges, pointing fingers, wasting time on marginal issues. Or, true leadership could muster the political will to face this reality and change it.
There were some good signs. Audrey Tayse Haynes, secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Serives, which oversees Medicaid, acknowledged that the findings were disturbing and set her cabinet in motion to learn more, educate prescribers and make sure that when children are diagnosed with behavioral disorders, "it's not just medical therapy that they are receiving but also behavioral therapy."
The kindergarten readiness numbers came from assessments of about 34,000 children in more than 100 school districts. Next year, Holliday said, all 174 school districts will do the assessments.
That will allow the state to pinpoint the most troubled areas and to track each child's progress, or lack of it. That's all information that can help the state and communities target resources more effectively.
Today some fortunate kids live where there are mental-health professionals, family courts, good schools and other services to help them get off a track that could lead to dropping out of high school and a lifetime in poverty.
Kentucky's challenge is twofold: to provide help where it's needed and to ensure kids get access it.
Even the best efforts of two important state agencies won't be enough to meet both those challenges.
"We have task forces on NASCAR parking lots," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, so why not one with the power to take this on?
"Do we have the courage and the smarts to build systems to finally get ahead of that curve?" Brooks asked.
It's a good question.