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Commentary: The 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book shows some decline in Utah child well-being

Utah does well in the annual survey, but fell from fourth to fifth overall this year.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Mothers with their children wait in line to get immunization shots at the Junior League CARE Fair in the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City Friday July 15. It's Utah's largest free health fair in its 24th year in the community. No appointments or insurance is needed. Services range from physical and well child exam to immunizations, vision, hearing and speech screenings and dental exams.

Many of us are starting to breathe a collective sigh of relief as life begins to return to “pre-pandemic normal,” seeing family and friends in-person, attending live events, planning vacations, etc. But as we celebrate these small steps forward, we also know that many have lost loved ones, jobs, housing or good health to this pandemic.

We also do not yet know all the lasting emotional, physical and economic impacts are for our community and our children. COVID-19 did not create structural inequities, but it did shine a light on them and, in many cases, made them worse for communities struggling with issues such as poverty, lack of health care and racism. And although Utah still fares better than many states when it comes to outcomes for our children, recent data shows we are slipping in certain areas and still have much work to do to keep our kids thriving.

Each year, Voices for Utah Children partners with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to release the KIDS COUNT Data Book. This annual report tracks data on child well-being for all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the following four categories: economic well-being, health, education and family and community.

While Utah continues to do well compared to the rest of the U.S., we are slowly trending down or remaining steady in all areas. Utah’s overall ranking in child well-being fell from fourth to fifth place in the country over the past year.

In the “health” category, Utah fell from 13th in 2020 to 18th in 2021. In 2019, 82,000 Utah children did not have health insurance, even though the majority of them were eligible for coverage through programs like Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). During the 2021 Legislative session, lawmakers took essential steps to help more children connect with affordable health insurance by funding more consistent outreach to encourage families to enroll. We hope to see improved enrollment rates as a result, as currently Utah continues to rank among the top ten worst states when it comes to insuring children.

The economic well-being of children fell from second in 2020 to fifth in 2021. Nationally, Utah is praised for its economic success as a state, but Utah families continue to face rapidly increasing housing costs. Utah ranked 10th in 2018 for children living in households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing, and the state dropped to 17th in 2019. With the current housing prices in Utah, it is quite feasible this trend will get worse.

In the “family and community” category, Utah fell from first in 2020 to second in 2021. Utah has ranked first in the category for many years, but dropped a bit despite improving areas such as the number of children in single-parent families. In 2018 Utah had 174,000 children in single-parent families, but in 2019, the number improved to 168,000 children.

Utah’s education ranking stayed consistent; we maintained a 10th place ranking. However, Utah’s early education numbers still lag behind much of the country, with close to 60% of 3- and 4-year olds not attending school.

While we can celebrate Utah’s victories for children, it is somewhat troubling to see some of those strong indicators start to slip. It may also be a few years before the data starts to show the full effects of the pandemic and all its upheaval on children in Utah.

We urge our state and local policymakers never to rest on accomplishments from the past but instead always look at new ways to ensure our state’s strong future by investing in our children today.

Terry Haven | Deputy Director, Voices for Utah Children

Terry Haven is deputy director of Voices for Utah Children.

Martín C. Muñoz | KIDS COUNT Data Analyst, Voices for Utah Children

Martín C. Muñoz is KIDS COUNT data analyst at Voices for Utah Children.

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