Another viewpoint editorial: Kids Count data gives Indiana an opportunity to do better

Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

If the health of children and youth is an indication of how a community cares for its young people, then Indiana is struggling to meet that measure.

The national 2024 Kids Count Data Book, a state-by-state report on child well-being published annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks Indiana 27th among the states — three places lower than last year. In specific categories, Indiana came in 15th for economic well-being and 17th in education, but 31st in family and community and 32nd in health.

Some of the statistics keeping the Hoosier State on the lower end of the national scale continue heading in the wrong direction:

  • 40% of children ages 3 and 4 in Indiana attend preschool, 4 percentage points worse than in 2019. Nationally, that number is 46%.
  • 30% of Hoosier eighth-graders were proficient in math in 2022, 7 percentage points worse than five years ago.
  • 32% of children and teens between 10 and 17 years old are overweight or obese, a 2 percentage point increase since 2017. Indiana’s 32% rate was the same as the national number.

Tami Silverman, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute, said the data shows opportunities and challenges ahead in improving children’s health and well-being.

“We should celebrate the progress we have made, such as parental employment rates and housing affordability, in the 95% of teenagers engaged in school or work, and a 29% improvement in the number of Hoosier children with health insurance,” she told The Journal Gazette. “However, disparities persist for many of our kids. Every child in Indiana should have access to quality education, low- or no-cost meals, reliable internet, a place to study, and time with friends, teachers and counselors.”

In particular, the state of young Hoosiers’ mental health should be of immediate concern to state and local leaders. According to the Indiana Kids Count data book released in February, 35.7% of Hoosier kids “felt sad or hopeless for more than two weeks,” a slight increase. The percentage of youths who considered suicide and planned suicide was down slightly, but still troubling: 17.4% and 12.8% respectively.

Hoosier families seeking mental health care can wait weeks, even months, for an appointment with a mental health professional, causing some to skip treatment, according to the Indiana Youth Institute. It’s difficult for many parents to secure such care for their child due to its cost, the required time and effort involved in getting an appointment, and a lack of insurance coverage.

But local health departments like Allen County’s are more proactive in combating health problems among children this year, due to the $225 million, two-year increase in public health funding that state lawmakers passed in 2023, Allen County Health Department Administrator Mindy Waldron said.

Student health is among nearly two dozen state-required public health services, and the Allen County Health Department has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding this year to community partners working in those areas.

“Several of our grant initiatives center around reducing violence in schools, increasing obesity prevention and nutrition education in schools, as well as in various populations,” she said. “Internally, for the first time, we also have in place a public health school liaison to work with schools on programs, education, training, and plans to get and keep kids healthy.”

Last year, Indiana Senate President Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, promised more mental health spending beyond the $100 million allocated through 2025. And Hoosiers should hold him to his word.

Lawmakers and local leaders should use the information from Kids Count in the same way they consult data for economic or quality-of-life investments, because there’s nothing more valuable than our children.