Report: Illinois' children faring poorly
Number of kids living in poverty in Champaign County is above state's average
CHAMPAIGN — Children need more than teachers, classrooms and books to have a chance at succeeding in school. They need to be ready to learn.
And standing behind readiness for school are the basics that some kids just don't have — safe and affordable housing, healthful food, medical care and mental health support, said Brenda Koester, assistant director of the University of Illinois Family Resilience Center.
A new report released last week by Voices for Illinois Children — Illinois Kids Count 2012 — takes a hard look at the educational, social, economic and physical well-being of children throughout the state.
Between the recession and state budget cuts, many children aren't faring well, said Kathy Ryg, the organization's president.
"What the data tells us in the 2012 report is the situation is serious, and they are really caught in a budget crossfire at the state and federal level," she said.
Koester said she was troubled to learn in this year's report that 53 percent of the children enrolled in Champaign schools and 66 percent of the students in Urbana schools were low-income (meaning their families were living at twice the federal poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four) for the year 2010-2011.
The report draws attention to the state's difficult financial situation, Koester said, "but pulling basic fiscal support for children and families could have disastrous consequences."
Champaign County also had a higher percentage of children living in poverty (21 percent) than the 19 percent statewide average for 2009-2010, according to the report.
Some other findings in this year's report:
— One in five Illinois children lives in poverty, and more than 33,000 children are homeless.
— In Champaign County, the median household income for 2009-2010 was $43,952, 18 percent below the statewide median.
— Since 2009, 18,000 children have lost access to quality early childhood education through a combination of budget cuts and delayed payments to service providers.
— State funding for school-based and community-based mental health services for children and adolescents has been cut by 20 percent.
— Last year, income eligibility was reduced for the Illinois Child Care Assistance Program, which serves mostly single-mother households, from 200 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent, potentially resulting in the loss of services for 9,000 children.
— Illinois has substantially expanded health insurance coverage for children through Medicaid and related programs, with less than 5 percent of children lacking coverage in 2010.
— In Champaign County, the number of children enrolled in Medicaid and related programs grew 49 percent between 2005 and 2011, a bit higher than the statewide average enrollment growth of 45 percent during that period.
— One in four children in the state is being raised in a single-parent household, and single-mother households continue to face high unemployment and poverty rates.
"We are condemning children born in poverty to live an entire life in poverty because of what we're taking away from them," said Sessy Nyman, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at Illinois Action for Children.
Illinois needs to invest in the support that makes a difference — early childhood and after-school programs that keep children safe and allow their parents to go to work, she said. And every child and family needs a place to call home, she added.
Lyn Jones, president and CEO of United Way of Champaign County, said the new report verifies findings in a 2011 local community report and the gaps in children's services are a big concern.
In Champaign County alone, there are about 300 homeless children, she said.
"A lot of these kids do not know where they're going to sleep from day to day, so how do you succeed in school in that circumstance?" she asked.
Clearly, education is the way out of poverty, Jones said.
"As a community we must look for ways to see that services for children in poverty are available. We must strive to wrap support around the educational experience so our kids are kindergarten-ready, attain grade level skills and graduate from high school. The number of children needing mental health services must also be addressed, along with overall health issues such as obesity and substance abuse," she said.
Ryg said her organization wants policy makers to understand this data as they face tough decisions on where to spend limited state resources.
"Investing in the programs that help kids meet every opportunity to do well is a sound fiscal policy," she said.
The full report is available at http://www.voices4kids.org.
This story appeared in print on Feb. 9.