Survey: Poverty Rising for State’s Kids

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

More Tennessee families are trying to raise children in the face of poverty and homelessness, according to an annual survey released Monday, June 24, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The number of Tennessee children living in poverty increased to 26 percent in 2011, compared with 21 percent in 2005, before the recession. About 34 percent of the state’s children lack secure employment, while an estimated 35 percent live in a household with a high housing cost burden, the survey found. Overall, Tennessee ranks No. 39 for the overall economic well-being of children.


“As our economic recovery continues, we cannot lose sight of doing whatever it takes to help kids, particularly kids in low-income families, reach their full potential, and that includes laying a sold foundation from the moment they are born,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Nationally, the number of children living in poverty also increased to 23 percent, compared with 19 percent in 2005. States in the Southeast, Southwest and Appalachia continue to rank near the bottom of the list for overall child well-being. With the exception of California, 17 of the lowest-ranking states are located in these regions. For the first time, New Mexico slipped to worst in the nation, edging out Mississippi, which ranked No. 49.

“A child’s chance of thriving depends not just on individual, familial and community characteristics, but also on the state in which she or he is born and raised,” according to survey findings. “States vary considerably in their amount of wealth and other resources.”

In many states, including Tennessee, charities and government programs were cut during the recession, making it more difficult for families and children to get by.

About 74 percent of Mid-South nonprofit organizations reported increased service demands in 2012, compared with 72 percent a year earlier. But many of those organizations cannot fully meet the demand for increased services because of funding constraints, according to data from the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence, a group that serves Mid-South nonprofits.

While there have been considerable economic setbacks for children living in Tennessee and elsewhere in the nation, there were some improvements in both education and health. The number of Tennessee children not attending preschool fell to 54 percent in 2009, compared with 56 percent in 2005. There were also statewide improvements in the number of fourth graders not proficient in reading, eight graders not proficient in math and the number of high school students not graduating on time.

Despite the improvements in education, the report findings found 66 percent of Tennessee’s eight graders are not proficient in math and 68 percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading. Overall, about 22 percent of high school students in Tennessee do not graduate on time.

2013 Kids Count profile: 


Economic well-being rank: No. 37

Education rank: No. 42

Health rank: No. 33

Family and community rank: No. 37

Source: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth; the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Children’s overall health in Tennessee also improved in every major category measured by the Annie E. Casey Foundation: the number of low birth weight babies, children without health insurance, children and teen deaths, and teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.

“The progress we’re seeing in child health and education is encouraging, but the economic data clearly speak to the considerable challenges we still face,” said Laura Speer, the Casey Foundation’s associated director for policy reform and data.

The effects of the Great Recession continue to be hard felt in states with the lowest economic rankings. When parents are unemployed or their incomes are low, they struggle to meet children’s basic needs for housing, medical care and quality child care. According to the Kids Count report, more than 4 million workers were unemployed for more than six months, and more than 3 million were without work for a year or more.

In 2011, nearly one-third of all children in the U.S. lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment.

Already high compared with other developed nations, the child poverty rate in the U.S. increased dramatically during and after the economic recession. The official poverty line in 2011 was $22,811 for a family of two adults and two children.

“We need to do better and be smarter about investing in effective programs and services to help ensure kids get the best possible start in life,” Speer said.