Saturday, July 9, 2016

2016 election is about children

Wyoming is a good place to raise children. The Annie E. Casey Foundation tested the premise and found it to be true…at least for now. Wyoming ranked higher than all but 11 of the 50 states for being “child friendly.” People who care about children can’t help worrying how much the current budget crisis may change that in the coming few years.

Using 2014 data, Casey measured economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors. But 2014 was a far different time than we will experience in the years ahead.

Wyoming finished first for economic well-being, a category including the numbers of children in poverty (13% WY, 22% USA), parents without job security (24%-30%), children in homes where costs of housing are overly burdensome (22%-35%, and teenagers in school and not working (4%-7%).

Our state ranked 18th for quality of education. The category is based on data reflecting how many children ages 3-4 are not in preschool (58%-53%), fourth graders not proficient in reading (59%-65%), eighth graders not proficient in math (65%-68%), and high school students not graduating on time (18%18%).

The most alarming news came in Casey’s review of serious threats to the health of Wyoming children. Our children scored near the bottom. Only two states were worse. Casey measured the numbers of low birth-weight babies (9.2%-8%), children without health insurance (6%-6%), child and teen deaths per 100,000 (32-24), and number of teens abusing drugs and alcohol (6%5%).

Under the category of “Family and Community,” Wyoming ranked 7th. Casey looked at risk factors such as the number of children in single-parent homes (27%-35%), households headed by someone without a high school diploma (7%-14%), living in high poverty areas (1%-14%), and teen births per 100,000 (30-24).

In the foreseeable future Wyoming will be challenged to prevent these numbers from declining and children’s lives worsening. Wyoming legislators haven’t exhibited the wherewithal to do much about this as they make choices without comprehending the enormity of the consequences.

During the recent budget session, legislators refused to accept millions of dollars by expanding of Medicaid. Those dollars would have provided badly needed healthcare for 20,000 low-income workers, bolstered cash-strapped hospitals, and pumped large amounts of money into the development of local communities’ healthcare infrastructure creating new jobs.

Expansion would have rendered unnecessary the severe cuts in critical programs that helped low-income families, the elderly, and disabled. Rejecting expansion also required cutting millions dollars from state education funding.

Now Governor Matt Mead has determined additional cuts are required immediately. He ordered state agencies to drastically cut already lean budgets approved by the legislature in February by an additional $248 million. With Wyoming already ranked 48th of the 50 states in terms of health threats to our children, the Department of Health’s ability to address these problems will be further impaired. WDH loses an additional $90 million in state funds, triggering the forfeiture of more than $41 million in federal funds.

Governor Mead told legislators that the Health Department program cuts include $6.7 million from development and disability preschools, $4.6 million from behavioral health, and $1.3 million in reduction to senior programs. Substance abuse, mental health, and suicide prevention programs will be crippled. The Governor also slashed $13.9 million dollars from the Department of Family Services, the agency maintaining what’s left of that agency’s safety net for children and families.

The Governor predicted the cuts would echo across the private sector, costing 700 workers the jobs on which they rely to provide for their children and the jobs in which they serve the needs of others. This, of course, is in addition to the hundreds of job losses already experienced in the energy and related industries.

Our challenge is to protect children and families as revenues continue to decline. As the state’s unemployment rate rises and the situation facing parents worsens, the lack of mental health and other services will exacerbate the threat.

2016 voters need to make certain they elect thoughtful men and women who can meet this challenge.

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