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New Kids Count 2021 data shows stalled progress, persisting racial disparities in Wisconsin, U.S.  

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Wisconsin ranks 10th in the nation when it comes to the general well-being of its children, according to an annual report released this week. However, families across the United States, including Wisconsin, continue to struggle to meet their children’s everyday needs during the COVID-19 pandemic while trying to manage increasingly unstable finances, school, work, and mental health, according to the report, and “the nation’s racial inequities remain deep, systemic and stubbornly persistent.”

According to a policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count 2021 data shows that racial disparities persist with the percentages of African American families with children reporting food insecurity and housing instability were four times higher than their white counterparts. 

“Last year, meaning the 2019 numbers, Wisconsin ranked 11th in the nation. Traditionally, the state of Wisconsin is ranked pretty high – between 10th and 13th. This year, the story is a little more complicated,” Erica Nelson, advocacy director at Kids Forward, tells Madison365. “Technically, we are ranked 10th overall. In many ways, we’ve stalled on some progress. We’re not really pushing forward on many of these different measures. 

“We can’t be complacent with 10th place and, really, that’s only half of the picture,” she continues. “What we really see is that in the state of Wisconsin you have 1 percent of Wisconsin’s white children living in high poverty areas compared to 35 percent of African-American children and 18 percent of Latino children. So these disparities remain extraordinarily high.”

Annually, the Casey Foundation comes out with a ranking of the well-being of kids and families across 14 different measures. There was some good news in the latest report. The poverty ranking for Wisconsin, for example, was down to 14 percent in 2019 versus 19 percent back in 2010. However, overall, the pandemic had a devastating impact on children and families across the state and nation, in particular for children and families of color.

“Families are recovering from the pandemic and they are feeling more confident about their ability to pay rent and about food security,” Nelson says. “The issue is that the recovery for folks of color and the disparities that were here pre-pandemic were exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a harder road to recovery for what was already desperate circumstances for communities and families of color.”

Signs of recovery are stronger within Wisconsin than nationally, but Wisconsin’s substantial racial and ethnic disparities, however, show no signs of abating. Compared to white families with children in Wisconsin during 2020, the percentages of African American families with children reporting food insecurity and housing instability were four times higher. For Latinx families with children, those numbers were at least two times higher. 

National data shows these disparities have continued into 2021 across the United States, and similar disparities were identified in a recent state-level report from Kids Forward. 

“The challenge before us is whether we can capitalize on signs of recovery from the devastating impact of the pandemic, ensure that recovery is equitable, and set new expectations for progress on key measures that were stalled pre-pandemic,” Nelson says.

To lessen these disparities, Nelson says that Kids Forward (formerly Wisconsin Council on Children & Families) is calling on communities and policymakers to advocate for fully expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act; raising Wisconsin’s minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); expanding affordable housing initiatives; reforming unemployment insurance to cover all workers and preserve labor rights; and increasing access to high-quality, affordable early education for all children.

“All of these things are very critical and would be very helpful to addressing disparities,” Nelson says. “There are so many things we could do, including making the child tax credit [from the American Rescue Plan] permanent and by investing in public education, that could have the long-lasting impact of improving the future trajectories of many children of color by alleviating family economic stress.”

With all of these things slow to happen on the state and federal level, Nelson feels like locally — in Madison and Dane County — people can make plenty of headway. 

“I think collectively we can do some great things here in Dane County in a regional and a place-based strategy in addressing these racial disparities. There is a lot of work to be done in Madison and Dane County but I think that folks are cognizant of that work and are making efforts to address it,” she says. “I think there are many positive things going on right here.

“I also know that there are folks working across the state tirelessly in many communities on behalf of children and families of color,” she adds.

Nelson has been working with statistics and data on children and families and racial inequities in Wisconsin for a long time, perhaps most famously as project director of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race for Equity, a project analyzing data regarding race disparities in the well-being of children and families in Dane County. How does she stay optimistic that change will come despite the constant disappointing data?

“I think I’m naturally optimistic. I think that’s a really interesting question. As of late, I’ve still been discouraged, partly by the state politics. But I stay optimistic because I see folks in Dane County and my colleagues and peers – a lot of folks – bringing innovation and investment and time and their passion to this,” she says. “From that perspective, I can stay optimistic. And I’m learning about folks across the state who are making the same investments and doing the same hard work on the ground in their communities. I listen and hear and watch all of these amazing people here and across the state and country keep at it. I think that optimism comes from that shared community of folks who are working on it.

“And the youth. They keep me optimistic. They have a level of hope and optimism and energy,” she continues. “They embody that because they are not quite cynical yet like we are.”

Nelson says that it’s going to take more than just people-power to move the needle on some of the numbers that we see year after year.

“We not only need the people working on the ground and the day-to-day and working in the community, but eventually we do need to elect the legislators who want to invest back in the people of Wisconsin,” Nelson says. “We really need to think about investing aggressively in the future.”