Innovation Ecosystem

A virtual rite of spring

The release of the 27th annual Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook is like bearing witness to the blooming of a flowering tree, filled with data constructs

Image courtesy of Rhode Island Kids Count

The cover of the 2021 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, to be released on Monday, May 10.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/10/21
The 27th annual edition of Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, to be released on Monday, May 10, is an annual rite of spring in Rhode Island that captures the importance of measuring the data for the health and well-being of families and children in Rhode Island.
What are the best ways to add data around the climate crisis to the ongoing data constructs of the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, with details about the levels of microplastic contamination in our air, water, and food? How can the positive work being done by Health Equity Zones become part of a research dataset measured by the Brown School of Public Health? What if there were a program of guaranteed income for every expecting mother in Rhode Island of $1,000 a month, to help ensure better prenatal care, better nutrition, and better economic support?
Years ago, I had a history teacher in high school who told his students that all of Greece was descended from one man named Helen, and that was why the Greeks were known as Hellenists. He also told all of his classes that the Nile River flowed from the Mediterranean Sea down into deepest Africa. Both “false” items were put on tests but the answers were not counted in the final grading curve.
When I challenged him about the flow of the Nile River, he smirked and said: “Ah, the light bulb went off,” as if he had been waiting for a student to challenge him.
We are a country still attempting to come to grips with its legacy of 400 years of slavery, embodied in the U.S. Constitution as only counting slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining the size of the electorate. As with the recent Presidential election and with the current efforts to vaccinate people against the spread of the coronavirus, it seems that people like to be lied to, to quote an observation by the poet Robert Bly.
The strength of the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook is that the comprehensive data constructs contained in the annual exercise are not easily distorted or manipulated by political hacks.
There was a refreshing honesty, in turn, by Gov. Dan McKee in his disavowal of a planned fundraiser for him being coordinated by a supporter of the former President Donald Trump. “I do not want to be associated with Donald Trump in any way, shape, or form,” McKee said, in a statement issued on Sunday, May 9. “ I do not like Trump…he is dishonest, divisive, and his ‘Big Lie” is a threat to our democracy. There is no place for a Trump spokesperson to co-host any event I am involved in.”

PROVIDENCE – This year, the day after Mother’s Day in Rhode Island is being marked by the virtual release of the 27th annual Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, an annual tradition that had in years past filled the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Warwick in a celebration of children and families in Rhode Island – before the COVID pandemic disrupted our lives.

The event had an ambience much like a political greeting card that showcased the best and brightest in the state – legislators, the Congressional delegation, business and labor leaders, and community advocates – all to be re-energized by the magic of student voices singing in an elementary school choir. It always seemed brighter and sunnier in that moment, wherever you lived in Rhode Island.

The cold harsh reality, however, was that facts contained in the annual voluminous Factbook were never cheery, despite the uplifting artwork. The gaps and disparities identified in the lives of kids were always presented in a full frontal display, revealing just how much the state had never quite lived up to its promise to protect mothers and children and parents, documenting the stubborn, persistent racial and ethnic disparities.

The facts in his year’s edition are no different:

• In Rhode Island, one in five children ages six to 17 has a diagnosable mental health problem, and one in 10 has significant functional impairment. Yet in 2019, an estimated 36 percent of children, ages three to 17, who needed mental health treatment or counseling, had a problem obtaining needed care. The problem: Mental health systems “tend to be fragmented and crisis-driven with disproportionate spending on high-end care and [a] lack adequate investment in prevention and community-based services,” the Factbook found.

• In Rhode Island, in 2019, one in seven children [28,009, or 14 percent] lived in poverty, and 7 percent [13,154 children] lived in extreme poverty, defined as families with incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty level.

• In Rhode Island, in 2019, 15 percent of children ages two to 17 are overweight and 16 percent are obese, for a combined total of 31 percent of children who are overweight or obese. Hispanic children [15 percent overweight and 22 percent obese] and non-Hispanic Black children [16 percent overweight and 20 percent obese] have the highest rates of being overweight and obese, according to the Factbook.

• Asthma is the most common chronic condition in children and a leading cause of school absences and hospitalizations for children under 18 in the U.S. Between 2015 and 2019, there were 3,783 emergency department visits in Rhode Island by children ages six and under [at a rate of 9.3 per 1,000], for which asthma was the primary diagnosis.

Translated, poor economic opportunities and a lack of safe, affordable housing, combined with toxic stress and food insecurity, are a never-ending plague upon Rhode Island children and families.

A public policy Bible
The Factbook has served as a Bible for public policy advocates, capturing a longitudinal construct of the facts, creating measurements and metrics in order to be able to get things done.

In 2021, when we all have suffered so much trauma and loss and disruption – and recovery from the public health crisis is still a slow, ongoing process, one day at a time – reading through the data constructs in the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook seems like perusing a yearbook to a high school graduation that never took place.

One of the traditions of the Factbook release is that ConvergenceRI gets time to have a conversation with Elizabeth Burke Bryant, the long-time director of Rhode Island Kids Count, conducting an interview that has the familiarity of old friends having a chance to talk. [Indeed, ConvergenceRI was there at the “birthing” of Rhode Island Kids Count in the early 1990s, when I served as communications director at United Way of Rhode Island.]

Here is the 2021 ConvergenceRI interview with Elizabeth Burke Bryant, at a time when the urgency of protecting the future of children and families has never been greater – and the racial and ethnic disparities in Rhode Island have never been more visible.

ConvergenceRI: How would you like to frame the context around this year’s Factbook?
BURKE BRYANT: I think we are, as a state and a nation, with our partners across the community, [recognizing that] there is a very necessary and long-overdue focus on racial equity. And [the need to] dismantle systemic racism that has led to persistent disparities by race and ethnicity across all areas of child well being.

It’s important first, to identify these disparities and to present them in order to identify ways to eliminate them.

That data can inform policies that are needed to dismantle racism and reduce disparities.

Finally, I would like to say that the Factbook, as it always does, presents key trends and highlights – from the best available data that we receive, from both state departments and from Census Bureau data, on the status of children, youth and families across all of the areas that the Factbook covers. [These include]: family and community demographics, economic well-being, health, safety and education.

ConvergenceRI: Everything has been disrupted because of COVID this past year across the board – everyone’s lives, everyone’s jobs, the entire health care delivery system. What do you think are the lessons, the takeaways, from a year disrupted by the COVID pandemic, as applied to children?
BURKE BRYANT: I think the pandemic put in stark focus both the disparities and the economic challenges that families faced even before the pandemic, which were worsened by the pandemic. I don’t know if that came out right.

ConvergenceRI: [What I hear you saying is]: It’s not that people should be surprised that there were such disparities, but people were able to see them much more clearly as a result of the pandemic.
BRUKE BRYANT: Yes, I’m saying what you just said. The COVID pandemic exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities that had existed before the pandemic.

ConvergenceRI: One of the transformations that has occurred in our lives is that we inhabit a new virtual world of Zoom. Do you have any reflections how that new reality, the Zoom reality, has changed your sense of advocacy and communication?
BURKE BRYANT: It has had a dramatic effect. It has shown us that there are access issues with communication through Zoom, and that there are real impacts of the kind of isolation that has resulted form the pandemic and its impact on the health and well being of children and families.

Just mentioning Zoom, so many impacts disproportionately fell on lower-income families and families of color, with families of color being hardest hit by the actual health conditions caused by COVID-19 as well as the economic impact.

When you are looking at schoolchildren, there was a real divide in terms of access to remote communications. I think lessons were learned in terms of needing to increase access to this technology.

ConvergenceRI: One of the more innovative solutions to address this gap in access was developed by ONE Neighborhood Builders. They developed their own free, wire-mesh Wi-Fi network; they are now looking to expand that. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healing the digital divide.”] Did you ever get a chance to visit them and experience that network or see the network in action?
BURKE BRYANT: No. But I admire their work very much. What you are describing sounds like an innovative and important solution to expanding access to the [remote] communications. It sounds like they developed a place-based solution to improve connections for families in that area.

Access to communications around services and programs and schools is so important, and it needs to be universally available to all children and families.

ConvergenceRI: You cover everything in the Factbook from soup to nuts and it’s impressive in how much data you have collected and presented. One topic, even though it’s mentioned at times, somewhat peripherally, that I didn’t see was around climate change, climate justice, racial justice – issues that cuts across health, education, the economy, and child well being. Was that something that you saw as an area that you might be willing to expand in the Factbook?
BURKE BRYANT: I would say that racial justice issues cut across our Factbook, and we highlight them everywhere in the Factbook. And racial justice disparities by race and ethnicity that is clearly [something] we have been shining a spotlight on.

Issues of equity and racial justice are unacceptable; persistent disparities that have been caused by historic and systemic racism need to be dismantled in order to both reduce and eliminate these disparities. That is clearly a priority of our Factbook, and it has been since the start.

But, in terms of climate, I think that’s an area that we could further develop. We have healthy housing, as you know, we report on asthma, we report on childhood lead poisoning, all of which are related to climate issues.

ConvergenceRI: It was on my mind because of some recent stories I had reported on about Allens Avenue and what’s happening to the community there. They have launched a drive to plant 5,000 trees in five years in the ZIP code 02905. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Imagine: plant 5,000 trees, in 5 years, in 02905.”] It’s just a suggestion; it’s not meant to be a criticism.
BURKE BRYANT: Thanks for raising that; it’s really important.

ConvergenceRI: Right now, Gov. McKee is sponsoring the first Facebook community forum to gather community input about what 2030 might look like, in order to develop ideas on how best to spend some $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan. What do you think about when it comes to what 2030 could look like, and where the investments need to be made over the next decade?
BURKE BRYANT: I think Rhode island has a great opportunity to wisely invest the American Rescue Plan resources, and there are some initiatives that will be coming, such as the American Families Plan.

I was very glad to see some major investments in childcare, in schools, in K-12 education as part of the American Rescue Plan. That’s really important.

One of the aspects that needs to be prioritized is the emphasis on the importance of paid family leave, because we know how important it is for parents to have the time to spend with their new biological or adopted children. Rhode Island is one of the few states that has adopted paid family leave. But we need to expand the number of weeks, and to make it possible for lower-income families to take advantage of it.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have anything on a wish list where you would say: We really need to invest in this?
BURKE BRYANT: Some of those investments are already included in both the American Rescue Plan and the American Families Plan. They envision a seamless system of care, services and support – from pre-natal care and the birth of a child all the way through their school years and connecting to college and careers.

I would reinforce that investment, first of all, to be made in increasing the child tax credit, a significant plank of the American Rescue Plan that will lift thousands of children out of poverty in Rhode Island and for millions across the country.

That would be a major step forward if we can use the child tax credit that’s in the plan and work to make it permanent; that would be one item that I would place on that wish list.

For too long, families have been scrambling for the tax credits for the care and support they need for their children, attempting to balance childcare, early child education, and work. So, I think the investments that are called for in the American Families Plan are significant, with more investments in childcare, to really shore up a system of childcare that has been under invested in.

This pandemic really [demonstrated] how much support childcare educators need in order to continue to provide care for Rhode Island’s – and the nation’s – children. Those investments are critical and need to continue.

The American Families Plan also included an important provision that calls for universal pre-K for three- and four-year olds. Which is really part of a childcare for all system.

The country has been working on creating this for years, but still, nationwide, only about 45 percent of children who are three and four years old have access to pre-K.

In Rhode Island, we have the number-one pre-K, tied with five other states, rated the best in terms of quality.

By providing families with more support, we can focus on prevention when it comes to child abuse and neglect. By providing support early on to children and families, including making sure that they have the economic supports they need, will go a long way to preventing toxic stress, which is something we focus on in the Factbook.

Investing in prevention in the child welfare system is really important. In this year’s Factbook, we have focused a lot on the effects of the pandemic and its impact on the mental and behavioral health needs of children and their parents.

We have increased the capacity of KidsLink, but that need will last well beyond the pandemic. As we look to 2030, we need to continue to improve out children’s mental health system. Because right now we know that only one out of about every five children and teenagers in need of mental health services receive those services. It’s been an issue in Rhode Island and across the country, one that we really need to work on as we focus on 2030.

ConvergenceRI: Is there anything that I haven’t asked you, that I should have asked about, that you would like to talk about.
BURKE BRYANT: We’ve covered a lot of ground, as we usually do, which I appreciate. There is one area, when we think of our poorer children and families, some of whom are enrolled in the RI Works program, which is Rhode Island’s cash assistance program. The Factbook shows a significant decrease in the caseload for that program, which serves only a small percentage of children living in poverty.

The main point I would like to make is that the cash assistance benefit, the monthly benefit, for the RI Works program, is $554 a month, and it has not been increased in 30 years. We are very supportive of increasing the RI Works monthly benefit to get to at least 50 percent of the poverty level.

ConvergenceRI: One of the bills that is now pending in the House is an effort to increase the value of SNAP benefit as a way to address food insecurity, by placing a tax on sugary drinks. Are you familiar with that?
BURKE BRYANT: Yes. In fact, we just provided strong testimony in support of the sugary drinks tax bill that would provide important improvements to the SNAP program. We are very much in support of that bill. There was a lot of very positive testimony at the hearing. It’s a very important issue, very connected to the Factbook’s child overweight and obesity indicator.

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