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story.lead_photo.caption Gloria Brent delivers free lunches to recipients Monday, June 21, 2021, at Second Christian Church in Jefferson City. Brent and other volunteers have committed to providing lunches for area youth who may otherwise miss out on the meal. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Document: 2021 Kids Count Data Book

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Missouri children's health continued to improve in 2019, according to the latest Missouri Kids Count Data Book, released Monday.

However, the state remained 30th-ranked amongst its peers, and organizers of the data are concerned what the data for 2020 will bring.

The 2021 Kids Count Data Book analyzed information for the five years from 2015-19.

"In 2019, fewer Missouri children lived in households with incomes below the federal poverty line than at any point in the prior decade," the report found. "During the years of recovery from the Great Recession, the number of Missouri's kids who lived in poverty fell to less than one in five, and sat at 17 percent in 2019."

Next year's data should give a detailed look at the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on the health of the state and nation's children, according to the report. Bill Dent, executive director of the Family and Community Trust, pointed out that the organization's partners had found new ways to work together during the ongoing pandemic.

In 1993, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan signed an executive order establishing the trust to promote collaboration and innovation in service delivery for Missouri's children and families, according to the FACT website. The order called for changes intended to drive relationships between state government and local communities (then known as Caring Communities). On his last day in office in 2001, Gov. Roger Wilson, who had replaced Carnahan after his death, signed another order reaffirming the first, but renaming the organization the Family and Community Trust (emphasizing the role of communities within the organization).

"In Missouri, we have seen firsthand the great challenges the pandemic leashed on communities in our state," Dent said in a news release. "We are fortunate to have our network of 20 community partnerships who were nimble enough to pivot to meet the ever-changing needs of children and families during this time of crisis."

As new information comes in, the partners will use the data to help inform state and community leaders on what works or doesn't, he continued.

The Kids Count report collects data from each of the state's 114 counties and the City of St. Louis to create an annual snapshot on the well-being of Missouri's children. Data are intended to measure the physical well-being of children based on economic well-being, health, family and community, and education. It was first released in 1993.

It compares the data with that from 2010.

For 2019, factors that illustrate the economic well-being for Missouri's children all improved, according to the latest report. The percentage of children in poverty (at or below an income of $25,926 for a family of two adults and two children) improved from 21 percent in 2010 to 17 percent in 2019 — equaling the national average.

At the same time, children whose parents lacked secure income during the year dropped from 31 to 26 percent. Children who live in households whose housing costs are considered burdensome decreased from 33 percent to 22 percent. The percentage of teenagers who didn't attend school and were not working dropped from 9 to 7 percent.

Despite economic indicators showing improvement, children in Jefferson City remained hungry, said Malissa Smith, an elder at Second Christian Church in Jefferson City.

The church at 703 E. Dunklin St., in the midst of the city's food desert, distributes lunches to area children five days a week, said Smith, who runs the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a place a food desert if it is a low-income census tract (at least 20 percent of residents are below the federal poverty level) where a substantial percentage of residents have low access to a supermarket or grocery store.

The food desert in Jefferson City is a triangle generally bordered on the west by U.S. 54; the east by U.S. 50; and the south by Ellis Boulevard, Chestnut Street, Leslie Boulevard and Moreau Drive.

The summer starts slow for the church's meal distributions, Smith said, but will pick up quickly when summer school ends July 1.

"We'll have anywhere from 100-120 kids a day," Smith said. "It's really a community thing. We started out with very little, but it grew. Everything (offered to children) is by donation."

The most the church has served was about 135 in an hour.

Meals include sandwiches, chips, fruit, snacks and a drink. Hot meals are offered at least once a week.

Contact Smith at 573-338-3307 to find out how you might donate to the effort.

Kids Count data also show the state improved its "family and community" numbers. Children in single-parent households remained steady at 34 percent. However, children who live in households where the head of the household lacks a high school diploma improved (decreased from 12 percent to 9). Children living in high-poverty areas improved (reduced from 10 to 8 percent). Teen births improved (down from 37 per 1,000 births to 20).

Under education, where Missouri was 21st-ranked among states (the only category in which Missouri is in the top half of states), improvements occurred among young children (ages 3 and 4) not being in school, which decreased from 55 to 54 percent, and high school students not graduating on time — which went from 19 to 10 percent.

However, countering those improvements, the percentage of fourth-graders who were not proficient in reading increased from 64 to 66 percent. And the percentage of eighth-graders not proficient in math increased from 65 to 58 percent.

Of the four measures, Missouri scored lowest in the health category for children, where it was ranked 38 among states.

The percentage of children without health insurance held steady at 7 percent. However, the percentage of babies with low birth weights increased (from 8.2 to 8.8 percent), the number of child and teen deaths increased (from 31 to 32 per 100,000 population), and the percentage of children considered obese increased (from 28 to 35 percent).

"Trends in the Family and Community domain were, for the most part, encouraging," the report found. "Improvements were seen in the teen birth rate, a smaller percentage of children were living with parents who lacked a high school diploma, and children living in high-poverty communities improved for the fourth year in a row."

The report's data don't show the effects of the pandemic on the state, since that began in 2020. However, organizers of the report looked at U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Surveys to find a feel for how families stood in 2020.

It found households with children oftentimes didn't have enough to eat.

"About one in seven adults with children (14 percent) said that in the most recent week, their household sometimes or always did not have enough to eat," the report found.

Parents had less confidence they'd be able to pay the rent.

"More than a third of black (37 percent) and Latino (35 percent) households faced this disastrous challenge," the report said.

Adults with children were less likely to have health insurance and often felt depressed or hopeless, according to the report.

Additionally, adults in the households were more likely to cancel plans for post-secondary education.

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