2016-10-06 / Front Page

R.I. Kids Count 2016: Stats and High Hopes

By Betsy Sherman Walker

When it comes to children in Rhode Island – their needs, their plight, their families, their homes, their battle with poverty as it threatens any hopes of a bright future – Stephanie Geller has an arsenal of facts, and she knows how to use them.

A policy analyst with Rhode Island Kids Count (RIKC), Geller was the keynote speaker for “Newport Data in Your Backyard,” presented by RIKC and hosted by the Newport Partnership for Families on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at the Newport Public Library. Based on the 21st annual publication of the Kids Count Factbook, Geller delivered her data-driven summary to a packed room.

Both advocate and watchdog, RIKC fell under the aegis of the Rhode Island Foundation from 1994 to 1997, and became an independent nonprofit organization in 1997. Its mission is to “improve the health, safety, education, economic well-being, and development of Rhode Island’s children.”

Geller’s data touched on a number of statewide trends in a fiveyear period as she discussed how Newport measures up as a locus of family and community life, health care, safety and education. “Where things are good,” she noted, “and where they’re not so good.”

She also invited those in the audience – a who’s who of area nonprofit directors and staff from the island’s social and community action organizations – to contribute. Also in the room were staff from Newport Hospital, the Newport Housing Authority, and the Newport School Committee.

The statistics – especially on the non-availability of affordable housing – were stark. Of the approximate 4,000 children living in Newport in 2014, there were 582 – 16.4 percent of the 18-and-under demographic – living in poverty in the city. There are also two income levels of need. There is poverty, which is defined as $24,036 for a family of four, and “extreme” poverty, defined as $12,018 for a family of four. Last year, 53 children in Newport were identified as homeless.

More unfathomable housing facts: Today in Rhode Island, a single parent raising two children would need an annual income of $51,492 to meet their basic needs. To afford the average rent of a two-bedroom in Newport – $1,468 in 2015 – the family breadwinner would need to earn nearly 2.5 times the state’s 2015 minimum wage of $9 per hour. Finally, a family of three living at the poverty level in Newport would have to give 88 percent of their household income to rent.

A perfect reason, interjected Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, to encourage people to vote yes next month on Question 7, the $50 million housing bond. “The bond would make more affordable housing for working folks,” she said. “They wouldn’t fall into poverty. Affordable means affordable for young families who are trying to move forward. If they are paying this much for rent, they are not making enough for health care.

“Families who make twice the minimum wage,” Paiva Weed emphasized, “still can’t afford housing.”

“It’s a travesty,” said a representative from the Newport Housing Authority. “Not only do we still need more affordable housing, but we need to preserve the housing we do have.”

Midway through her presentation, Geller put a slide on the screen, “Infants Born at High Risk,” that unwittingly presented a sharp scenario of the impact of poverty on the arc of a child’s life. Such infants, it explained, are identified as children with mothers younger than 20, unmarried, and without a high school degree. The result: The child is nine times more likely to grow up in poverty, more likely to suffer abuse and neglect, less likely to be kindergarten ready, likely to perform poorly at school, and less likely to graduate from high school.

But there were some bright spots. RIKC stats indicate areas where Newport “appears to be doing a good job,” including the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. In Newport, Geller said, 70 percent of eligible recipients are enrolled, versus the state’s rate of 59 percent. Rhode Island gets high marks – 15th best – in children’s health insurance (3.4 percent are uninsured). The number of children identified with lead poisoning has seen a nine-year drop, and has moved from 84 percent in 1997 to eight percent for the 2016 school year.

The final half-hour of the meeting was set aside to announce the district’s joining Campaign for Grade- Level Reading (GLR), a national initiative to increase early reading proficiency. The formula is that students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school. To combat that, the district has endorsed a comprehensive strategy for children from birth to age eight, bolstered by efforts to improve the health and access to high-quality learning (including summer programs), address absenteeism, and improve the classroom experience.

Superintendent Colleen Jermain was ebullient. “It has taken all of us to get this job done,” she said. “Everyone in this room is connected.”

At the top of the two hours, Geller said that she liked Newport because “it feels like you all get it. I love working with people who think the way we do.”

Jermain’s endorsement of GLR seemed tailor-made for the Kids Count agenda. “We are creating healthy safe places [for children] to have early experiences,” she said, “and we are making a strong school system for a strong city.”

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