Wisconsin ranks dead last when it comes to certain disparities between white and minority children, according to a report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The study looked at a dozen indicators, from birth weight to the number of kids enrolled in preschool to household poverty. Ken Taylor, executive director of the non-profit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, was not surprised by the findings.
“If we look at education, if we look at employment, if we look at involvement in the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system, if we look at adult incarceration – on every indicator, we see that African American children are doing worse, in some cases much worse than other children, particularly, white children in our state,” Taylor says.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation report uses census data to rank states based on racial disparities. In one indicator, it found 70 percent of white children in Wisconsin live in households with middle class incomes. By contrast, only 20 percent black kids fit that category.
But those numbers may not paint a totally accurate picture, according to Tim Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW-Madison. He says the study did not take into account social welfare programs that boost household income.
“There are more accurate ways to measure poverty, which include in particular the programs that we spend most of our money on to help the poor, those being the food share program in Wisconsin, that’s what our food stamp program is called, and refundable tax credits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit,” Smeeding says.
Yet, Smeeding agrees the situation is dire for many poor, minority families. He says one factor contributing to Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation ranking is the state’s relatively small black population.
“They’re concentrated in a large central city where they’re at a disadvantage, where the schools...it’s well known the schools aren’t as good, and where there’s a lot more single parenthood and so forth. That means you’re probably going to get worse outcomes, and that’s true,” Smeeding says.
While the national report focuses on economic and educational milestones for children, it does include one health indicator - the number of babies born at a normal birth weight. Many more black babies in Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee, are born prematurely.
Dr. Geoffrey Swain is medical director for the city of Milwaukee Health Department and an associate professor of family medicine at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. Swain says preemies are more likely to be sicker as children and adults.
“It really shows how difficult it is for black children as a group to get off a good start in life compared to white children right from birth,” Swain says.
“When one part of our community is not doing well, everyone is going to have the burden of trying to figure out, how do we be a stronger community or a stronger city or a stronger state or a stronger society,” says David Pate, a professor in the UWM Helen Bader School of Social Welfare.
He says when one group is faltering, employers have a harder time finding qualified workers, government safety nets are strained and health costs go up for everyone. Pate believes discrimination is one factor that continues to hold back minorities.
“From the job hiring practices in various communities or various agencies, to who gets into college or who gets into any other type of service they may need to be able to be self sufficient. Unfortunately, we are a country that needs to talk more about race and why there is an issue, and what structural systems are in place that do not allow for access to be open for everyone,” Pate says.
Pate says an improved public education system would help inner-city families.
Ken Taylor at the Wisconsin Council for Children and Families advocates what he calls a “two-generation” approach to address disparities. He says the public, private and non-profit sectors must work together to ensure all kids have good quality education and health care. And for their parents, stakeholders need to invest in training programs that lead to family-supporting jobs.
Taylor says it took decades for severe racial disparities to develop in Wisconsin, but solutions require urgency. The report says by 2018, the majority of children in the United States will be of non-white ethnicity.
Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson issued a written response to the report Tuesday.
"We have known for some time that there is a low-income disparity that disproportionately affects non-whites when it comes to outcomes for children, especially in the area of educational success. What we need to do to address this issue and improve outcomes for all children is to design programs, like the YoungStar program, that empower parents with the information and tools to obtain high-quality early childhood care, one of the best possible choices parents can make for their children’s future," Anderson writes.
She adds, "We also need a community focus on the role that parents must play in combating the language deficiency that many low-income children have when entering school. By simply speaking to their kids, telling them stories and having conversations with them beginning at the earliest stages of their lives, parents have the greatest tool available to help their children prepare for school. Ultimately it is parents and families who play the biggest role in putting their children on the path to success in school…and beyond."