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Kentucky ranks 37th for how well it's protecting children and providing for them during the coronavirus pandemic, and more than one in five Kentucky families with children didn't have enough to eat in December, according to a report from Save the Children, a global children's-rights organization.

The ranking was based on four months of data from a bi-weekly Household Pulse Survey that is conducted by the Census Bureau. The researchers looked at three hardships they say make it harder for children to reach their full potential: hunger, economic hardship and lack of tools for remote learning.

A scan at the end of November and through most of December found that Kentucky was one of the top three states for hunger, and that nearly half of Kentucky families are struggling to pay their bills.

The year-end analysis found that 22 percent of Kentucky families with children under 18 said they didn't have enough to eat in the prior week; that 11% of homes with at least one school-age child lacked internet access a computer for educational purposes; and that 47% found it somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual household expenses in the prior week.

Alissa Taylor, Save the Children's director for Kentucky rural education programs, told the Public News Service that 60% of low-income students regularly logged in for online instruction in the pandemic, compared to 90% of higher-income students.  

Nationwide, the pandemic is hitting the poorest families the hardest and that because of this, "childhood equity gaps are likely to grow," the report says. "They are about 15 times as likely to struggle with hunger as the wealthiest families, four times as likely to lack internet for educational purposes and nine times as likely to have difficulty paying bills." The challenges were even higher for Black and Hispanic families. 

The analysis also found that the number of coronavirus cases and Covid-19 deaths in a state was not predictive of where a state was ranked. It concluded that what mattered more were the resources and protections that each state has, or lacks, to protect children and families.

What's Kentucky doing to address these issues?

In August, the state allocated $8 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to help reduce the monthly cost for low-income parents to pay for internet access for K-12 children. The program runs through the school year. Kentucky is working on a statewide broadband initiative that could be paid for by the American Rescue Plan, the successor to the CARES Act. 

Kentucky has provided rent and utility assistance as well as unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic, but the unemployment process has been plagued with long waits to get claims resolved and employment is still well below pre-pandemic numbers. 

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy reports that while the state added 4,300 jobs in February, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, it still has 90,400 fewer jobs in February 2021, than it did in February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit. 

The state's 857 Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, which serve the 1,200-plus schools that have 20% or more students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, have also been able to help. The centers say they did more than 49,000 home visits during the initial closure of schools from March to June 2020. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Family Resource and Youth Services Centers across the state met the increased needs for students and their families by adapting service delivery," Melissa Goins, director of the centers said in an e-mail. " Familiar with community needs, our FRYSCs coordinated home visits, porch drop-offs, and virtual platforms to continue connecting with families during this time.”

In survey about their pandemic response in that period, 98% of the FRYSC coordinators said they had provided food assistance, 85% provided non-traditional instruction packets and educational supports, 85% had provided basic needs and essential products, 65% had made family welfare checks, 56% had provided Covid-19 prevention information, and 35% had provided information about unemployment or jobs. 

Another way the state is working to make sure it's kids are getting enough food is participating in the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program that provides funds through a benefits card to households with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals to cover the food costs on the days they learn from home. The P-EBT program will run through the school year.

Flap over food aid to parents owing child support

Gov. Andy Beshear also recently vetoed Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, which would reinstate a 2018 policy to disqualify some non-custodial parents from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly food stamps, if they owe child support. 

More broadly, the bill addresses regulations that have been found deficient after review by a legislative committee, and is meant to ensure that the legislature has ultimate control over policymaking decisions and not the governor. Beshear's administration put a halt to the policy in April 2020, citing the pandemic.

West's bill would reinstate the policy and prevent the Cabinet for Health and Family Services from issuing any similar regulation. Beshear said that would hurt more than 6,000 children in the state. 

"It is a cruel bill at any time, but certainly in a once in 100-year pandemic," Beshear said at a news briefing. "It takes food benefits away from children, and that is wrong. . . . SNAP benefits provide crucial help to so many of Kentucky's children. I'll not allow food to be taken away from children's tables simply because of actions of parents." His veto will likely be overridden by Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

An analysis of the bill's effects by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy found that the policy is ineffective at significantly increasing child-support payments and would worsen food insecurity across the state, including for kids. 

West noted at a February committee meeting that the interim health committee had asked for this policy to be reinstated because it is not fair to reward noncustodial "deadbeat parents" who haven't paid their child support and that this policy will give them an incentive to do so.

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