Good evening, Friends!

I attended the 2nd National Building Bridges Initiative this week so I missed some of the daily child welfare news I follow. This morning, while catching up on what I missed, I was excited to see this headline in The Atlantic: “America’s Child-Poverty Rate Has Hit a Record Low“!

“Yes!”, rang out in my head! Reducing child poverty is good stuff!

With this great news about America’s children, of course I had to find out how our beloved Louisiana fares against child-poverty.

Alas, not so well.

While the national rate of child-poverty has declined from 18.1% in 2012 to 15.6% in 2016, Louisiana’s child poverty rate holds steady. In fact, child-poverty in Louisiana has held steady since the turn of this century – with a little slippage. Louisiana’s child-poverty rate in 2000 was 27% compared to today’s 28%.

So, while the percentage of children living in poverty in the rest of our nation has decreased from 17% in 2000 to 15.6% in 2016, today, a greater percentage of Louisiana’s children are living in poverty than when we were concerned about Y2K. We are going the wrong way!

Flat-lined.

If electronic monitors measured Louisiana’s child-poverty rate like the devices in surgery or in emergency rooms of hospitals, one would see clearly the “flat line” of well-being for Louisiana’s children. Other states are saying, “we have a heart beat!”, while in Louisiana we hear the monitor’s ominous tone. Child-poverty is only one of many flat lines on the complex monitor of child well-being.

This persistently poor performance is not a problem of any particular political persuasion or philosophy in Baton Rouge or even in your community. As I recall, Louisiana has made no overall progress on child-poverty through at least the last six gubernatorial administrations!

As I consider that decade after decade, Louisiana has been ranked near the absolute bottom for child well-being, a lonely word comes to mind: “neglect”. It is hard for us to consider, but as a state, we have neglected our children. We pay for this, too. Child-poverty has been called the “single greatest threat to children’s healthy brain development.” I believe most of Louisiana’s other low rankings find their genesis in our history of poor child well-being.

Not for a moment do I believe this neglect is purposeful. I know it is not. Louisianans do care for children.

Our neglectfulness is passive. It works like this: we do not collectively care for all our state’s children as much as we care for other things. Could it be that this neglect – signified by decade after decade of poor child well-being and by a needle stuck at 28% on child-poverty – is really a consequence of our collective priorities?

In Louisiana, we feel good about our ability to respond to crisis. We know how to mobilize in response to every “pop up” crisis we face. What have have missed is that Louisiana’s children – OUR children – are caught in a steady-state crisis of child well-being. It’s a crisis which has lasted decades. Child-poverty is just one measure.

Location, location, location …

As a state, we have failed to move the child-poverty needle from 28%, but I want to point out that our 28% child-poverty rate is a state-wide aggregate number. Location is an important consideration once we begin looking at child-poverty within Louisiana.

Did you know 38% of children in New Orleans live in poverty? But wait! We must not think of Louisiana’s child-poverty problem as a “big city problem”.

Are you aware that more than half the children under age 5 in eight rural Louisiana parishes live in poverty? These 8 parishes and their under 5 year old poverty rates are East Carroll (69.2%), Madison (61.7%), Claiborne (61.2%), West Carroll (58.8%), Franklin (58.0%), Concordia (55.8%), Union (53.2%), and Tensas (52.2%).

(This data regarding child-poverty is reported on page 17 in the Winter 2016 edition of Early Childhood Risk and Reach in Louisiana, a collaborative effort of the Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health and the Louisiana Department of Health, office of Public Health, Bureau of Family Health.)

I am not a politician, so I may be wrong about how this works, but if I were an elected official from one of these 8 parishes, child-poverty would sit on the top of my “Daily Fix It” list! I would be scrambling for help! I would be inviting national experts, international aid organizations, and any other assistance I could conjure to come to the aid of my children. I would be passionately concerned about the individual and collective futures of those whom I represented, but especially focused on the children living in poverty who have no political voice to draw attention to their plight.

How do we fix it?

As one former gubernatorial candidate told me about child well-being, “Rick, there are no silver bullets.” He was correct but he was not giving heed to reality. Believing there might be a silver bullet is like believing in vampires. We know they do not exist. Talking about them is not a solution.

Rather than the proverbial silver bullet, what we in Louisiana must have is a fully-stocked tool chest of effective strategies to counter child poverty and we must use our tools around the clock. Whether we know it or not, we are in a race for the lives of our children – and ultimately, the fate of our state.

(The Louisiana School Breakfast Challenge is a new statewide program designed to fight the effects of child poverty. Launched by Governor John Bel Edwards, the School Breakfast Challenge encourages schools to increase student participation in eating breakfast at school. Schools across Louisiana should be jumping on this! Administrators can learn more about the school breakfast program, including alternative breakfast delivery models and best practices by visiting http://louisianaschoolbreakfast.org/)

The economy does not care for children

We know it was not a great economy or booming business environment that has nearly halved our national child-poverty rate in the last 50 years. During the last 5 decades, our national economy has offered stagnant wages, has taken advantage of increased automation, and has transferred a significant number of jobs offshore. So, if it was not a booming business environment, what improved the national child-poverty rate?

It appears simple. Child-poverty in our nation has reduced due to the expansion of safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. These three national efforts have helped move millions of children out of poverty.

It is for economists to figure out, but it seems to me that investing in programs to reduce child-poverty might be a good place for Louisiana to begin climbing from the bottom. Louisiana’s School Breakfast Challenge is one example of the types of opportunities we can make available for our children.

Other states have learned that reducing child-poverty improves child, adolescent and adult health (as children grow through their lifetimes), increases the sense of security and safety for children and their families, and improves socialization of children. Healthy, secure, socialized children grow into healthy adults who can be fully engaged, contributing members of their communities. Fully engaged, contributing citizens will create a better Louisiana.

(A good read is Robert D. Plotnick’s “Child Poverty Can be Reduced”, in The Future of Children/Children and Poverty, Vol. 7, No. 2 – Summer/Fall 1997.)

Perhaps the key to unlocking a better tomorrow for Louisiana is as simple as for all of us to focus on eliminating child-poverty today.

What do you think?


Rick Wheat
President and Chief Executive Officer