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A report ranks Minnesota third for child well-being, but there are big gaps between white children and children of color

Advocates are looking to Congress for new family supports that could move the disparities.

As more data from 2020 and the pandemic is published, a picture of the state of child wellbeing in the country — and in Minnesota — is becoming more clear, and activists are turning to state lawmakers and Congress to help close the gaps where minority children are being left behind.
Photo by Kindred Hues Photography on Unsplash

Minnesota ranked third in the nation in child well-being, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, but child advocates say that Minnesota’s children of color are having a very different experience from their white counterparts, and hope that members of Congress will work to close that gap.

The 2021 KIDS COUNT Databook, an annual report that aggregates data on children in the U.S., documents 16 indicators of child well-being that fall into the categories of economic well-being, education, health and family and community. The composite scores for those categories are translated into a state ranking for overall child well-being, where Minnesota ranked behind Massachusetts in first place and New Hampshire in second place.

The Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota provides some of the Minnesota data found in the KIDS COUNT data book, and also releases its own report with more detailed, disaggregated data that includes breakdowns of kids’ race and ethnicity to show child well-being in more detail.

“We’re glad to see that Minnesota is third,” said Bharti Wahi, executive director of the CDF-MN. “But when you disaggregate the data you start to see a kind of different set of circumstances. Our state has some of the most pronounced disparities in outcomes for the children.”

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Many reports have shown that children’s mental health and general well-being has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Data Book and CDF-MN 2020 report illustrates the divide in wellness that was already present before the pandemic. Now, advocates say it’s up to Congress to enact policies that will better support children, especially those with marginalized identities.

What the data show

While data often show disparities among children of color and their white counterparts, the context of those experiences is often missing. “Nothing’s wrong with the kiddos,” Wahi said. “The reality of it is, we have created systems in which they cannot actualize their real potential. Their gifts are not maximized or honored or even allowed to flourish.”

That much is clear in Minnesota: Systemic racism in the state shows up in homeownership rates, contributed to disrupting historically Black neighborhoods, appears in state poverty rates, exacerbates issues in the state’s police forces, and deeply affects the daily lives of Minnesotans of all ages. The KIDS COUNT data is not an indictment, Wahi says, but a reflection of the inequity that comes from years of systems failing to prioritize the needs of marginalized kids and adults in Minnesota.

The KIDS COUNT national Data Book shows that in 2019, the most recent year with data available, 11 percent of kids in Minnesota were living at or below the poverty line, but the CDF-MN report contextualized that number. The poverty rate for Somali children in Minnesota sits at around 57 percent, and at 32 percent for African American children. For Burmese children living in Minnesota, the poverty rate is 58 percent. For non-Hispanic white children, it’s 8 percent. Overall, Minnesota ranked third in the U.S. in economic well-being.

“In a country such as ours, when there’s still this level of poverty, there are some questions we should be asking ourselves,” Wahi said. “I just really think about how kids are not having the same kinds of experiences in our state. And if there’s anything that the last year has shown, I think … youth and families of color are experiencing a different kind of Minnesota.”

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey from 2020 also showed that nearly half of Minnesotans in households with children lost income since March 2020. Since March, Minnesota households with children are twice as likely as those without children to report food insufficiency within the past week.

In the KIDS COUNT report, Minnesota ranked even better in health than in economic well-being, landing in second place nationally. But health insurance coverage, which was one of the ranking factors for health, varied widely: Three percent of non-Hispanic white children in Minnesota were uninsured, while 13 percent of American Indian and 8 percent of Hispanic or Latino children were uninsured as of 2018, the most recent year with data available.

“So much of our insurance is tied to work, and as more people became unemployed [during the pandemic], that has an implication for their child’s health insurance,” Wahi said. “After this pandemic, there’s no denying how important health insurance is to the overall health of our communities. When people have access to health care, we are all better.”

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Even as the country begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, statewide prosperity does not automatically yield conditions in which all kids can thrive and recover equally. At that, recovery from disasters or economic downturns, like the Great Recession, have historically been uneven, widening disparities and leaving children and families of color behind.

In 2020, more than one in five households with children said they had only slight confidence or no confidence at all that they’d be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment. More than a third of Black (37%) and Latino (35%) households faced this challenge. The KIDS COUNT data book found that across the U.S., forced “shifts to remote learning and work and widen[ed] racial and economic disparities already endemic to American life.”

Will Congress be able to address disparities in child well-being?

As more data from 2020 and the pandemic is published, a picture of the state of child well-being in the country — and in Minnesota — is becoming more clear, and activists are turning to state lawmakers and Congress to help close the gaps where minority children are being left behind. Americans saw some federal support during the pandemic in the form of stimulus payments, which were shown to substantially reduce hardship, especially for lower income families.

Rep. Angie Craig, who has introduced legislation to make the U.S. child welfare system more supportive of all children, especially those children from LGBTQ+ and religious minority groups, highlighted the importance of supporting marginalized kids with economic stimulus.

“There are a couple thoughts as I looked at the [poverty] data: One, just how important the American Rescue Plan is going to be to help close some of those gaps around poverty with the extension of the Child Tax Credit,”  Craig said. “And we’re the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, and we know there’s still an urgent need to improve our foster care and child welfare systems.”

Craig, who is an LGBTQ adoptive parent and mother of four, said she knows that the disparities in the child welfare system are real. “We need to make sure that we’re focused on closing those gaps in disparities between white and children of color across the country,” she said. “We have to realize that nonwhite children and LGBTQ youth experience disparities in the child welfare system, and, you know, often they are those that are left behind.”

The KIDS COUNT Data Book named “the historic expansion of the federal child tax credit” in March of this year as a component of the American Rescue Plan that will significantly help kids whose families are struggling financially. The legislation is expected to cut the child poverty rate by more than half by providing parents $3,600 for each child under age 6 and $3,000 for each older child up to age 18. This legislation is authorized for only one year, and it is still unclear whether Congress will make it permanent.

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The ARP relief package gave over $40 billion to child care providers across the country, including $550 million to Minnesota. But some child care providers and advocates have worried that the one-time lump sum payment may not be enough to support an industry that has been underfunded and under-resourced for years.

In an effort to extend the Child Tax Credit, as well as invest in families and children, President Joe Biden introduced the American Families Plan in April. The AFP calls for a five-year extension of the Child Tax Credit, and would cost $1.8 trillion. The AFP is in addition to his $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan, and would provide 3- and 4-year-olds with universal pre-K, create a national paid family and medical leave program and offer two free years of community college to all students.

It’s an ambitious plan with a difficult path ahead. To pass the American Families Plan, Senate Democrats would need to get at least 10 Republicans on board. But if Tuesday night’s vote to consider the For the People Act — the Democrats’ mammoth voting rights bill — is any indication of Republicans crossing the aisle, future compromise between the two parties may be difficult in the 50-50 Senate.

For now, it seems, national-level policies to directly address disparities in child well-being are in congressional gridlock.

“Having been a child advocate for a long time, I’m always shocked by how difficult it is to prioritize children and youth,” Wahi said. “You know, how difficult it is to pass policies, how difficult it is to do those things, it just feels like it feels like it should be a no brainer. But it’s not.”