Originally published in Washington City Paper on June 2, 2020.
Save the Children, an international humanitarian group, published a new report today ranking states and counties across the U.S according to where children are “most and least prioritized and protected.” The rankings are based on four factors Save the Children says “ends” childhood: malnutrition, poor education, teen pregnancy, and early death to ill-health, accident, murder, or suicide. To measure these, the group looked at infant mortality rates, child homicide and suicide rates, child food insecurity rates, the rate of children not graduating high school in four years, and teen births.
D.C., which was one of the more than 2,600 counties and county-equivalents surveyed, fell in the bottom quintile for all counties, and ranked 1,008 out of 1,120 urban counties. While D.C. was not formally treated as a state in Save the Children’s report, its top researcher re-ran the numbers as if it were and tells City Paper if D.C. were a state it would fall in the bottom half of states on all indicators, and the bottom ten on child food insecurity (43rd), on time to graduate (50th), and child homicides and suicides (51st, or last).
Nikki Gillette, the lead report researcher, explains their U.S. index was built as a companion to their international index, which came first. That index, which was also updated today and first published in 2017, evaluates 180 countries based on “childhood enders” that are similar to the U.S indicators, but also include child marriage, child labor, stunting, and forcible displacement by conflict. The U.S. “badly trails” nearly all other advanced countries in helping children reach their full potential, the report says, coming in 43rd place—tied with China and Montenegro.
“We wanted to take a rights-based approach, looking at the rights of children codified and guaranteed in the [U.N] Convention on the Rights of the Child,” says Gillette. “In that, there is this really shared vision of childhood where children grow up safe from harm, surrounded by friends and family, and are able to play and learn. There are slight variations around the world, but that vision of what childhood is really is the same.” All the data was collected prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gillette says D.C. students were most at-risk relative to other urban counties and states when it comes to graduating on time. “It’s a 135 percent higher failure rate than the urban county average,” she says, basing her assessment on the 2016-17 school year, the most recently available data at the time of analysis. On childhood poverty, D.C’s rate stands at 25 percent, higher than the urban county average of 18 percent, and the rural county average of 23 percent. D.C.’s teen birth ranking is 19 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, just slightly better than the urban county average of 20 births per 1,000.
While the rankings offer a novel tool for comparison, they are not the only numbers to look at to understand what’s going on in D.C. According to data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the four-year graduation rates for black, white, Asian, and Hispanic students in D.C. have all improved over the last decade, though major disparities still exist. More than 90 percent of white and Asian students graduated in four years in 2019, compared to 68 percent of black students, and just 60 percent of Hispanic students. Far more black and Hispanic students in D.C. do not graduate high school in four years than black and Hispanic students do nationally. By contrast, the percentage of white students in D.C. not graduating on time (11 percent) is the same as the percentage of white students not graduating on time nationally.
Teen births have steadily declined in D.C. over the last decade. In 2009, the rate was 48 births per 1,000 teen girls. While the teen birth rate has declined in all eight wards, rates are still higher in wards 7 and 8.
“With many indicators of well-being, on average we’re doing better, ” says Kimberly Perry, the executive director of DC Action for Children. “But when we pull back the curtain, we see that even with improvement, black and brown children are not being served as well as their white peers, and often children who face multiple systemic challenges, such as living in low-income households and having a disability, are still falling especially behind.”
Eleni Towns, the associate director for No Kid Hungry, a national advocacy group, tells City Paper that while child food insecurity rates are higher in D.C. than they are nationally, D.C. has made some improvements over the last few years, particularly around increased participation in federal programs like the National School Lunch Program and the Subsidized Nutrition Assistance Program.
Ten years ago, D.C. passed the Healthy Schools Act—the first legislation of its kind in the nation—which requires schools to offer free breakfast to all students, and requires schools with high concentrations of poverty to offer free breakfast later in the school day. Since the bill was implemented, according to a new scorecard from the Food Research & Action Center, D.C. has ranked in the top four for school breakfast participation in the country.
Hunger and food insecurity, Towns says, is just “part and parcel” of low-income instability.
“What we see with families living at the brink of poverty or below is any sort of loss of income or lowering of employment or challenge really causes food insecurity to increase,” she says. “Food is one of those things that’s ‘easier’ for a family to take a hit on rather than not paying a medical bill or getting gas. We see parents skipping out on meals or eating less if they’re in trouble because it has less immediate implications than not paying rent or an electricity bill.”
Towns says her organization is bracing for food insecurity rates to spike amid the pandemic, but praises D.C. for working hard to provide families with school meals and notes Congress recently made it easier for SNAP beneficiaries to use their food stamps online.
New Census data released last week indicate that half of D.C. households with children were not at all confident, or only somewhat confident, in the ability to afford food over the next four weeks.
And while D.C. is renowned for its universal pre-K program, which began in 2009, raising children in D.C. is still incredibly difficult for families, with a top barrier being the cost of childcare. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual cost of infant care in D.C is $24,243—or $2,020 per month.
“D.C. is one of the most expensive [places] in the country when it comes to the cost of infant and childcare—that’s a real pressure point,” says Rachel Metz, the data and research manager at DC Action for Children. “Our turnover-rate of childcare providers is also extremely high, likely in large part due to the low wages early educators receive for the high-skill work they do, and that also can impact the quality of care.”
One longtime early-childhood expert in D.C. who was not authorized to speak publicly, tells City Paper the problem in the city is not a lack of resources, but an uncoordinated, segmented government. They pointed to the fact that D.C. Public Schools just lost out on $14 million in federal Head Start funds, money that would have gone to providing comprehensive services for low-income children, after failing to comply with Head Start’s safety requirements.
The Birth-to-Three For All DC Act, which passed in 2018, is a comprehensive law that advocates hope will help address these challenges around cost and uncoordinated services. Advocates who organize with the Under 3 DC coalition are still pushing to fully fund that legislation, but in the wake of the pandemic, have been pressing Mayor Muriel Bowser and the Council to provide emergency relief to early childhood providers, including the roughly 20-30 percent of licensed providers who typically don’t receive government subsidies. Advocates have requested $10 million to get those providers through the summer months, stressing that the city’s already strained childcare system can’t afford to lose any more seats.