New Jersey children continue to make progress on health and other social-welfare indicators, according to a new report by child advocates. They challenged their colleagues to use the data to fight potential cuts to federal funding and healthcare programs.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey released the 2017 KidsCount data book Monday. It showed the number of uninsured youngsters dropped 40 percent between 2010 and 2015 — and as much as 66 percent among low-income kids — to reach its lowest point ever. In the interim, asthma hospitalizations dropped nearly a quarter, preventative dental services increased by almost one-third, and the number of children receiving mental health services jumped more than 50 percent.
But some 75,000 children still lack health insurance, according to the report, and proposals to replace the federal Affordable Care Act and cut funding to other social-welfare programs could quickly erase the gains seen in recent years, the authors warned. While the annual KidsCount report is traditionally used for local advocacy and policy discussions, they said this year required a more forceful response.
‘A war on children’
“We are at war. Remember the war on poverty? That was positive. This is a war on children,” ACNJ president and CEO Cecilia Zalkind declared, speaking Monday at Thomas Edison State University. “I’m going to challenge you all today to use this year’s KidsCount report as ammunition,” she continued, urging the audience to use the data to lobby state and federal elected officials, or candidates for office, to protect children’s programs. “We have threats (pending) that are going to present a challenge to children unlike anything we’ve seen in our state for many, many years.”
ACNJ has released KidsCount data for 25 years as part of a national effort to track state-level child welfare data sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This year’s report featured a new more user-friendly format and coincided with the advocate’s launch of its #NJVotes4Kids campaign, an effort to ensure children’s needs are considered in this year’s gubernatorial campaign.
The nonprofit organization also invited the candidates in this year’s race for governor of New Jersey to join them at the gathering to learn about the KidsCount data and discuss their priorities for child welfare. Five contenders attended, including two of the four leading Democratic primary candidates: state Sen. Ray Lesniak, of Elizabeth, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Sayreville resident. The 2017 gubernatorial primary is Tuesday, June 6.
The governor’s race provided a focus for the ACNJ, a nearly 40-year-old organization based in Newark, but much of the concern voiced by the group’s leaders was directed at leaders in Washington, D.C. “We are at a moment in time,” Zalkind warned.
Cutting billions from Medicaid
Republican leaders in Congress, fueled by comments from President Donald Trump, passed a proposal earlier this month that experts have said would cut billions from New Jersey’s existing Medicaid program and drive up the cost of commercial health insurance — changes that could end coverage for more than half a million Garden State residents. The controversial measure — including an amendment drafted by U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican from Burlington County — has prompted public protests around New Jersey. It faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate.
“Anyone who makes decisions that are of widespread nature and doesn’t place a high priority on children should question their moral compass,” ACNJ board chairman Bob Sterling added. “Yet, in one of richest nations in the world,” he continued, “there are children who are going to go to bed hungry tonight. I can never understand that.”
ACNJ’s KidsCount report also suggested plenty of opportunities for improving the welfare of New Jersey’s nearly 2 million minors. The percentage of children in poor or low-income families has not declined in the past five years, and it includes more than half of all black and Hispanic kids. Graduation rates have held steady, but remain lower for low-income children and kids of color than for all children overall. Options for licensed child-care continue to shrink. (In 2015, the federal government defined poverty as those earning less than $24,000 for a family of four; low-income topped out at $48,000 for a four-person family.)
Persistent racial disparities
ACNJ’s data, collected from a range of state and federal programs, revealed persistent racial disparities in healthcare metrics as well. Infant mortality declined by 11 percent overall between 2010 and 2014, and nearly 30 percent among African-American babies, but they are still over three times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday. Black infants are also born with low birth weights at nearly twice the rate of white babies.
Not all the news was bad, of course.
Breastfeeding rates have shot up more than 80 percent in four years, and far more children have access to free meals at school, the report found. Immunization rates increased 14 percent and, as of 2015, at least eight in 10 kids were vaccinated by age two. In addition, obesity has declined nearly 20 percent among Garden State youngsters under age four, twice the drop in rates seen nationwide.