- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

Do kids count in the District? The 12th annual “Kids Count” report, released last week, shows slight signs of improvement among the inferior lot of the city’s children, but all is definitely not well.

In the new report, which examines 40 indicators of family wellness, the District showed improvement among 22 indicators, declines among 17 others and no change in one.

The results also were broken down by city wards, showing that “the deep pockets of poverty in Wards 7 and 8” have the worst indicators.

“We are concerned about the pattern of entrenched poverty,” says Kinaya C. Sokoya, executive director of the D.C. Children’s Trust Fund, which issues the “Kids Count” report.

A whopping 31 percent, or 34,745, of the children in the District live below the federal poverty line, which is $19,350 a year for a family of four.

A closer look at the data tells a disturbing story.

It’s a story of misplaced priorities that every politician and advocate in the nation’s capital must read as the clash over public-policy initiatives escalates.

“The indicators present in this report should always be interpreted in the larger public and program context of the city,” Ms. Sokoya says. “Although more indicators changed for the better, much still needs to be done in order to ensure a healthy environment for children and families in the community.”

Specifically, “the overall well-being of children and families is not where it should be, and improvements must be seen in other critical areas, including overall poverty levels, homelessness and sexually transmitted diseases,” she says.

The devil in the details about the District’s educational achievement also is telling.

Students in all grades still are performing below national averages. Although students in the lower grades show slight improvements on standardized tests, scores of students in the upper grades continue to decline.

Although the rate of poverty declined slightly last year, the report shows that the number of families living in poverty — 96,829 residents, or 17.7 percent of the District’s population — “still remains well above the national average.”

Children are twice as likely as adults to live in poverty.

It doesn’t help that there is a serious disconnect between the number of jobs and the number of D.C. residents who are jobless.

D.C. leaders need to deal with the fact that the unemployment rate rose another percentage point, to 8.2 percent, in 2004.

Meanwhile, between June 2004 and June 2005, the total number of jobs in the District rose by one percentage point for the seventh consecutive year.

“This indicates that the jobs are not going to District residents; they are going to people in Maryland and Virginia,” says Latisha R. Atkins, director of public policy for the D.C. Children’s Trust Fund.

Not surprising, homelessness increased for the fourth year in a row.

Still, the number of children receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families subsidies decreased by 4 percent from June 2004 to June 2005. But the D.C. Children’s Trust Fund did not account for people leaving the city because of rampant gentrification.

On the gentrification front, it is interesting to note that although black women and teens are having fewer births, the number of births for white women in the Northwest sections of the city increased by 2 percent, giving the District its first boost in births in a decade.

“It says who’s coming in and who’s going out,” Ms. Atkins says.

Sadly, more than half of the District’s grandmothers, who themselves live in poverty, are raising their grandchildren.

The total number of juvenile cases reported in D.C. Superior Court rose in 2004.

Although violent juvenile deaths decreased by four from 2002 to 2003, “offenses against persons” accounted for the largest increase in juvenile crime.

Among those younger than 20, new cases for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis increased by four percentage points in 2004.

The D.C. Kids Count Collaborative for Children and Families “is an alliance of public and private groups using research to support advocacy for changes in human, social and economic policies and practices of government and others.”

Ms. Atkins says, “We put the data out there so the community can be aware, and we let the community make its own judgments [about it].”

The “Kids Count” report offers a series of recommendations and strategies predicated on the related data.

They include:

• Ensure that all school buildings are safe, well-maintained, updated and quickly repaired and that all schools have sufficient materials and equipment.

• Build high-quality partnerships with community organizations in the greater D.C. area to help increase student achievement.

Ms. Atkins says the D.C. Children’s Trust Fund recommended a “systems approach” to providing solutions to these issues, which means everyone in the community, not only parents, must get involved in making conditions better for the city’s most vulnerable children.

“If conditions in the [District] are going to improve, all segments of the community must address the issues present in this report,” Ms. Sokoya said.

The District’s mayor proposes spending in excess of $600 million for a baseball stadium without a shovel going into the ground.

Already the city’s rainy-day fund has been tapped to the tune of $125 million for this government giveaway.

It is anybody’s guess at this point whether this risky venture will pay off in dividends for city families.

The D.C. Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation will ask the full council to vote on a wishful school modernization plan that mandates school closings.

Schools before stadiums? Babies before billionaires?

When the D.C. Council votes today on these two public-policy initiatives, they will make it crystal clear for everyone: Do “Kids Count” in the District, really?

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