Kentucky's gains in child well-being — even while more children lived in poverty — should inspire lawmakers to tackle economic inequality in 2016.l
Smart policy and new state laws — including graduated driver's licensing and mandatory booster seats — help explain decreases in child deaths as well as less teen pregnancy, fewer low birth-weight babies and more children with health insurance in Kentucky.
New state laws and smart policy also would help chip away at the poverty that places so many obstacles in the way of too many hardworking Kentuckians and their children.
The latest edition of the annual Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 25 percent of Kentucky children lived in poverty in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2008.
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More encouragingly, during the same period, the rate of child and teen deaths in Kentucky declined 24 percent, compared to a decline of 17 percent nationally.
Deaths per 100,000 youngsters ages 1 to 19 in Kentucky declined from 33 to 25. Nationally, teen deaths decreased from 29 to 24 per 100,000 youngsters.
A word of caution about the statistics: Child and teen deaths in vehicle crashes in Kentucky rebounded in 2014 and this year. The steep decline in 2013 may have been an anomaly.
But the overall trend is fewer child deaths, along with children in booster seats surviving crashes unharmed. Vehicle crashes account for a third of child deaths.
It seems safe to assume that lives are being saved by the graduated licensing law limiting night driving by novice drivers and the number of passengers they can have in the car with them.
Lives also are being saved by the booster seat law that requires adults to buckle young passengers into safety seats. The legislature this year required more children to be in booster seats, which will protect even more young lives.
Another encouraging trend, Kentucky's 24 percent decline in teen pregnancy from 2008 to 2013, can be traced to a number of factors, including better sex education available to more youngsters, along with greater access to birth control and the availability of long-term contraceptive implants.
Kentucky's teen birth rate remains higher than the national rate, which is higher than the rest of the industrialized world. We still have a lot of work to make sure youngsters become adults before they become parents.
Six percent of Kentucky children, compared to 7 percent nationally, lacked health insurance in 2013. Kentucky's uninsured rate is probably even lower now because of Gov. Steve Beshear's decision to make the most of the Affordable Care Act by expanding Medicaid and setting up the Kynect health insurance exchange, changes that began in 2014, after the Kids Count data.
So many tangible improvements in young Kentuckians lives — made possible by lawmakers and the governor — should serve as a mandate to keep going.
It's intolerable that 1 in 4 Kentucky children live in poverty. New research shows that disruptions caused by poverty in a young child's life can leave lasting disabling imprints on the brain,
Two proven steps the next governor and legislature should take to fight poverty in Kentucky:
■ Become the 26th state to enact an earned income tax credit, returning money to low-income working families.
■ Become the 30th state to raise its minimum wage above the federal $7.25 an hour.