Child Poverty in Wyoming Increases
By Marc Homer, Kids Count Director at the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance
“If you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions.” --Ancient Proverb
The percentage of Wyoming children under age eighteen living in poverty increased from 11 percent in 2005 to 14 percent in 2010. This is a disappointing way to close off a decade in Wyoming history that has been marked by great prosperity.
Wyoming’s prosperity is writ large with good intentions across the state. You see it in the capital construction at UW, and in the forward thinking Hathaway scholarship that aims to set more youth on a path toward higher education. You see it in the new school buildings and recreation facilities that have sprung up across the state. You see it in new SUVs and pick-ups cruising the streets of our more prosperous communities. You see it in the low unemployment rate and new businesses opening their doors.
Given this era of great prosperity and the promise for a brighter future that it portended, it’s discouraging to report that of Wyoming children under age five, 19 percent lived in poverty in 2010, a twenty-seven percent increase since 2005.
It’s clear from the research that living in poverty or in a low-income household can have a deleterious effect on all facets of a child’s development, including school success. In 2010, 39 percent, or four in ten Wyoming children lived in households below 200 percent poverty, up fifteen percent from 34 percent in 2005.
PAWS data (2010) shows that 59 percent of 3rd graders eligible for free and reduced lunch scored below-proficient in reading compared to 39 percent among those not eligible, those who come from a higher income class. This pronounced achievement gap is measurable in every exam subject, across every grade level.
Nobel Prize winning economist James J. Heckman points out that investing in the early years of disadvantaged children’s lives is a policy that promotes both equity and economic efficiency. According to Heckman, investing in quality early care and education is, “the foundation of school readiness”, and is not only a social justice imperative but also an economic imperative with far-reaching implications for society. Heckman sites the HighScope Perry Preschool study as a model for success.
The long-term Perry study measured the effects of high-quality early care and education on low-income three and four year olds, documenting a return to society of more than $16 for every tax dollar invested in the early care and education program.
The researchers who carried out the Perry study recommend several key elements for a successful quality early-childhood education program. Those elements include an evidence based program model utilizing highly qualified staff while maintaining group sizes of 1:10 children. In addition, the teachers should interact with families on a regular basis via home visits. Finally, in order to validate services are supporting children and families they must engage in regular evaluation of the program and children’s progress.
The recession that began in 2008 hit our Nation hard and the economy remains stagnate. Slow recovery is seemingly fueled by hope and sometimes by hope alone. How unfortunate that policy discussions taking place here in Wyoming sometimes veer into the ideological wilderness under the influence of bickering Washington politicians more concerned with getting elected than solving our Nation’s problems.
Wyoming’s recent rejection of Federal money for programs aimed at improving the lives of disadvantaged children may in some obtuse way teach Washington a lesson in frugality. However, the unintended consequence will very likely be the slowing of progress towards improving Wyoming children’s lives. Our elected leaders may want to more carefully examine the long-term impact on quality of life in Wyoming when weighing policy choices in today’s politically charged climate.
Wyoming needs a long–term strategic plan for helping ensure children stay out of poverty and on a path towards good health, quality education, and prosperity, throughout the good times and the bad. As the Governor suggested when meeting with the Joint Appropriations committee, delaying work on needed infrastructure projects may make them more expensive in the future. Continuing with investments aimed at improving the lives of children will result in less dollar expenditures, lower social costs, and a higher quality of life for all of Wyoming.
The Annie E. Casey foundation recently released No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration. The report concludes there is now overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the wholesale incarceration of juvenile offenders is a failed strategy for combating youth crime for the following reasons:
* Does not reduce future offending by confined youth: Within three years of release, roughly three-quarters of youth are rearrested; up to 72 percent, depending on individual state measures, are convicted of a new offense.
* Does not enhance public safety: States which lowered juvenile confinement rates the most from 1997 to 2007 saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than states which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly.
* Wastes taxpayer dollars: Nationwide, states continue to spend the bulk of their juvenile justice budgets - $5 billion in 2008 - to confine and house young offenders in incarceration facilities despite evidence showing that alternative in-home or community-based programs can deliver equal or better results for a fraction of the cost.
* Exposes youth to violence and abuse: In nearly half of the states, persistent maltreatment has been documented since 2000 in at least one state-funded institution. One in eight confined youth reported being sexually abused by staff or other youth and 42 percent feared physical attack according to reports released in 2010.
"The traditional approach of locking up youth offenders wholesale -- even those with limited or no histories of serious or violent offending -- has continued for decades without any evidence that it helps kids or protects the public," says Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. "This report highlights the crucial challenges facing the youth corrections field. Our hope is that the research will serve as a catalyst for developing more effective and efficient juvenile justice strategies. "
Wyoming has retained the dubious distinction as the U.S. state with the highest rate of juvenile committed confinement in the nation. The rate is defined as the number of youth in residential placements based on order of a juvenile court after being adjudicated for delinquent offending, per 100,000 juvenile population. Wyoming's rate was 395 in 2007 compared to a U.S. rate of 194. Showing some improvement, Wyoming's rate decreased by 14.5% since 1997 when the rate was 462.
To help understand the costliness of the State of Wyoming's refusal to change its ways and implement best practices, it is useful to compare the Cowboy state to Vermont, a rural state with roughly the same child population as Wyoming.
Vermont is a national leader when it comes to promoting child well-being. Vermont ranked 4th in the nation in 2011 for overall child well-being compared to Wyoming which ranked 28th in this year’s Kids Count report based on ten key indicators. In fact, the Green Mountain State has been in the top ten at least since 2000 while Wyoming has bobbled between 23rd and 33rd during the same period.
Vermont’s child population was 131,099 in 2007 while Wyoming's child population was 126,410. In 2007, Vermont had just fifteen youth in committed confinement that year while Wyoming had 222. According to estimates by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, Vermont's juvenile corrections budget was $3,431,106 while Wyoming's estimated budget was $65,800,310.
Wyoming Kids Count Director Marc Homer says, "The definition of insanity regarding Wyoming's juvenile justice system is doing the same thing over and over again--locking kids up, paying an estimated $66 million to do it, and refusing to measure for results."
According to the "No Place for Kids" report, Wyoming is one of just eleven states that does not spend money on evaluating whether its approach works. Wyoming has no evaluation system that would allow policymakers to compare recidivism rates between confined youth and those treated in alternative justice programs facilitated at a fraction of the cost. The average annualized cost of placing a youth in detention is $88,000 whereas a typical Big Brothers/Big Sisters youth mentoring program (featured on WPR's Open Spaces) costs an average $987 annually.
Nearly all other alternatives to committed confinement examined in the AECF report, such as in-home or community-based programs that focus on prevention and treatment, are delivering better results for a fraction of the cost.
The key recommendations advocated from the Casey Foundation are:
* Limit incarceration to youth who have committed serious offenses. States like Texas and California for example, have changed their laws so that only youth found guilty of felony crimes can be committed to state custody. Currently in Wyoming, just 27 percent of youth in committed confinement were found guilty of a violent index crime. The rest could be treated more effectively and at a much lower cost in community based programs.
* Invest in alternatives. States should redirect funds previously spent on incarceration to support high-quality treatment and supervision programs proven to work. States should also expand access to career preparation and vocational training programs, and promising models for specialized mental health and substance-abuse treatment.
* Change the financial incentives for incarcerating youth. Right now, many local juvenile justice officials face a perverse choice: They can either offer youth cost-effective community-based programs at the expense of local governments, or they can commit them to more costly and less effective custody programs which are often funded entirely by the state. States like California and Ohio have adopted new financial incentives that make the decision to treat and supervise youth offenders in their home communities the smarter choice all around.