Every summer, the Annie E. Casey Foundation releases its KIDS COUNT Data Book, a report providing a glimpse of what is happening to children throughout the nation and in each state.
The 2012 Utah data, released last week, is our "canary in a coal mine." It is our warning sign that the needs of children must be made a priority if we want to ensure that today's children become tomorrow's productive adults.
Although the data reveals some improvement in child well-being, Utah ranked 11th nationally, the worst ranking in the 23-year history of the publication.
This falling rank indicates that children's issues need to be elevated in our political discourse and debate during this election season.
Utah kids are faring well in several indicators. We experienced a 6 percent decrease in teen pregnancy, a 17 percent fall in child and teen deaths, and a 14 percent decrease in teens abusing alcohol and drugs. That's the good news.
However, one figure 16 percent of Utah children living in poverty, a 45 percent increase from 2005 to 2010 impacts all other measures of child well-being and will have long-lasting, negative implications, not only for the 135,000 children in poverty, but for Utah's future economy.
Our worst national ranking was in education, where we ranked 27th. Access to quality education at an early age provides low-income children the opportunity to succeed as adults. The data book reveals that too few attend pre-school, third-graders are not reading at grade level and too many are not graduating from high school, a necessary step toward success.
Utah can reverse these trends with increased political will to develop policies affording equal opportunity for all its children.
During a time when financial resources are limited, these data provide vital information that should help policymakers make the difficult and right decisions that give children their best shot. It's far too easy to discount such expenditures as welfare or charity rather than what it really is an investment not unlike other long-term investments in infrastructure.
Policymakers are not exclusively responsible for prioritizing investments in kids. Voters have a responsibility to make children a priority by voting for candidates who choose to make investments in the education and economic needs of our children. Candidates need to know that voters value these investments.
In the many discussions about jobs, deficit reduction and the economy, it's easy to ignore kids. They can't vote and they certainly do not have super PACs.
As voters, we can ensure that these issues are addressed by asking candidates questions like those found in our 2012 Voter Guide, available at http://www.utahchildren.org.
What actions should be taken to ensure that every child entering kindergarten is ready to learn?
Should Congress support or reject a budget plan that cuts CHIP and Medicaid, depriving more kids of health insurance?
Should the United States and Utah make a commitment to eliminate child poverty within a generation, as has the United Kingdom?
This election year, help all candidates for elected office understand that providing kids access to quality education, nutrition and health care is a wise and cost-efficient investment in our future.
When Utah is prepared to make that investment and demonstrate that the infrastructure of our families is as important to the Utah economy as the infrastructure of our roads, child well-being will improve.
Tracy S. Gruber is policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children. Terry Haven is director of KIDS COUNT, Voices for Utah Children.