Child welfare realities ought to shame us all

It has become an annual rite of embarrassment, frustration, rationalization, despair and denial: The 2011 Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows that Georgia and Alabama rank -- again -- near rock bottom in almost every meaningful category of child well-being.

The Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization, annually ranks U.S. states in 10 key categories of child welfare. In the latest survey, Alabama ranks an appalling 48th out of the 50 states. Georgia was only six notches better, at 42nd.

This is not college football, and there are no winners in these standings. The losers, all children, number in the hundreds of thousands.

More ugly statistics: Georgia’s child poverty rate has increased by 22 percent since 2000, Alabama’s by 19 percent. That math comes out to a lot of hungry kids, and more or less reflects a distressing national trend: The child poverty rate rose 20 percent nationwide over that same period.

Much of the trouble is related to the economy, especially over the last three years; the downturn has all but negated gradual gains in child welfare in the 1990s. Among the most troubling child health indicators were increases in infant mortality, low birth weight and teen deaths. Sociologists and public health professionals say the struggling economy has limited poor people’s access to health services like prenatal care by forcing states to cut public health and nutrition programs. In Alabama in 2009, a whopping 35 percent of children lived in families with no parent holding a full-time, year-round job.

But the recession doesn’t explain all of this continuing human tragedy. Family welfare advocates point out that both historically poor states have ranked in the bottom 10 in such surveys for decades.

Some of the frustration stems from the fact that so much of this hardship is avoidable. The nonprofit Voices for Georgia’s Children estimates that 75 percent of kids who currently lack health care coverage -- about 230,000 children -- are eligible for either Medicaid or PeachCare, the state program for working families who earn too much to qualify for public assistance but too little to afford private health care. (Alabama’s AllKids program, which survived the 2011 state budget ax, functions in much the same way.)

The Voices for Georgia’s children website estimates that providing coverage for every uninsured child in the state would cost Georgia about $150 million, which would bring $250 million in matching federal funds. The state managed to afford a $30 million tax break for Delta, so what are the health needs of 230,000 children worth?

Moral considerations aside, the deferred cost of doing little or nothing is always incalculably higher. The danger -- indeed, the near certainty -- is that long after the economy has recovered, the problems of these children will have kept getting worse. And the problems for the rest of us will be just beginning.