More Luzerne County children ages 0-4 are living in poverty this year than last, and more lack insurance, according to a new report released by a children's advocacy group.
The bad news is offset by the fact that access to some services has increased slightly, but, overall, local children are faring poorly compared to peers statewide.
There are troubling signs that our deferred investments in young Pennsylvanians are starting to impact their long-term opportunities to learn and achieve, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children President Joan Benso said in a press release accompanying the unveiling of the advocacy group's annual School Readiness report.
The organization has long advocated for greater spending on quality pre-school and pre-kindergarten programs, as well as health insurance and programs to increase the chances of a child's success upon entering school, focusing on indicators that are statistically linked to a child's performance in school, such as low birth weight and education level of mothers.
Proponents of these programs point to studies that show every dollar spent on early education is paid back many times over by helping a child enter first grade fully prepared, thus reducing costs for special education, tutoring and other remedial work.
They also point to studies suggesting at-risk students – including those in low-income families – who receive services early in life are more likely to earn degrees and get good jobs later in life, and less likely to turn to crime, need welfare or public insurance or abuse drugs or alcohol.
According to the report, the number of children living in low-income families – a family of four with a household income of $46,100 or less – rose from 6,800 last year to 7,782, or from 41.8 percent to 47.1 percent in Luzerne County.
By comparison, the percent statewide crept from 40.8 percent to 41.6 percent.
The number of local children without health insurance jumped from 954 to 1,382, a climb from 4.4 percent to 6.7 percent, a sharper increase than the statewide change from 5 percent to 5.2 percent.
The rate of reported child abuse cases, as well as the percentage of cases substantiated, climbed slightly locally while it dropped statewide.
In Luzerne County, there were six cases per 1,000 children ages 0-4 in 2011 and 6.2 in 2012, while statewide the rate dropped from 6.5 to 5.7. Locally, 20.2 percent of reported cases were substantiated in 2011, while 20.6 percent were substantiated this year. Across the state, the percentage of substantiated cases dropped from 17.5 percent to 15.1 percent.
Luzerne County also saw a nearly threefold increase in the number of children ages 0-4 living in families where English is not the primary language, from 361 to 906, or from 1.9 percent of the total to 4.6 percent. Statewide, the percentage dipped from 3.9 percent to 3.8 percent.
There was some modestly good news in the numbers locally, including a slight decrease in the number of children born to mothers lacking a high school diploma (550 to 525), the number in foster care (352 to 314) and an increase in those attending publicly funded pre-kindergarten (1,131 to 1,163) and in high quality day care (210 to 315).
But the report notes that, statewide, the slivers of good news are countered by equal or even greater doses of discouraging numbers. For example, the number of children receiving early intervention services has increased by about 6 percent, but the number receiving public health insurance has dropped 10 percent.
Similarly, the number of children enrolled in high quality day care has climbed about 6 percent, but the number in publicly funded pre-kindergarten such as Head Start has dropped to the lowest rate since 2007.
Without mentioning specific cuts in spending initiated by Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, the report puts the blame on a decline in state funding for early childhood education and health care.