Conservatives and liberals will always debate the efficacy of government programs and the proper role of government, but there's no arguing that public policy (or lack thereof) significantly affects people's quality of life — for better or for worse.
Proof of that comes every year in the form of the annual "Kids Count Data Book" published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Baltimore-based foundation is a private charitable organization that aspires to help build better futures for disadvantaged children in the U.S.
The report, now in its 25th year, tracks how America's kids are doing, state by state, across four major areas: economic well-being, education, health and family, and community.
It should come as no surprise that Louisiana consistently ranks near the bottom when it comes to the well-being of our kids. There were pockets of good news in the latest report, but both the good and bad news support the notion that government programs can have a dramatic impact on kids' welfare — up to a point.
Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport demographer and veteran observer of Louisiana politics, recently drew the same conclusion upon reading the latest "Kids Count" report — which ranked Louisiana 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Noting in his online column that the report once again highlights Louisiana's (and the South's) "poverty problem," Stonecipher mined U.S. Census data since 1960 (before the federal "War on Poverty") and found some interesting facts.
For example, in 1960 a staggering 39.5 percent of all people in Louisiana lived in poverty. The rate in other southern states was comparable — five of them had higher rates. In 2012, Census data show that 19.9 percent of Louisianans live in poverty. That's a dramatic reduction over five decades, although Louisiana still ranks near the bottom compared to other states. (Stonecipher confirmed that the numbers are adjusted for inflation.)
But can Louisiana's poverty rate get even lower? Stonecipher says he's not optimistic.
"Our poverty problem has always been with us, and there is no suggestion in these data or surrounding facts that such will change," he wrote on his blog. Despite the fact that Louisiana's overall poverty rate has been cut in half since 1960, things could actually backslide. "[G]iven the relative paucity of government spending in the foreseeable future," Stonecipher concluded, "it will likely take hard work to hold this progress."
In an email exchange, he expanded on that theme. "All low-hanging fruit was pretty much picked" by the feds' war on poverty, he noted. "Everything since then is bedrock, locked-in poverty, seemingly impervious to further reduction in the South ... a cultural distinction."
The "Kids Count" report supports the notion that well-run government programs can help. Two examples stand out, and they reflect rare good news about the well-being of Louisiana children: Our state has one of America's lowest rates of uninsured children (5 percent), and we rank eighth nationally in the percentage of kids enrolled in pre-school.
Both bits of good news can be traced to state government programs. The LaCHIP kids' health insurance program is a national model, one to which Gov. Bobby Jindal should point with pride — except that, technically, it was an expansion of Medicaid, which we all know he now opposes. But the truth is undeniable; as Louisiana health secretary under then-Gov. Mike Foster, Jindal championed LaCHIP. Similarly, Louisiana's relatively high pre-K enrollment reflects state policies encouraging early childhood education.
My point is not that government can (or should) solve all our problems, but rather that public policies and programs can and often do make a significant difference in people's lives. But, as Stonecipher and others note, just as often there is a "bedrock" level of poverty, ignorance and every other societal ill that no level of governmental spending will ever cure.
Hopefully, we can at least find a way to get Louisiana out of the bottom 10 percent, especially where our kids are concerned.
For more information on the Kids Count report, go to the Annie E. Casey Foundation website at www.aecf.org and download the full report.