Before COVID-19, overall child health and economic well-being in Kentucky was improving, but the pandemic put much of that progress in jeopardy, according to new federal data.

Kentucky ranked 37th nationwide in overall child well-being in 2019, according to the 2021 Kids Count Data Book. Sixteen measures are used to rank each state’s child welfare status, including family stability, access to education and health.

The data book, published by Kentucky Youth Advocates, a statewide educational non-profit, uses data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It shows that Kentucky made “measurable, though slow progress” from 2010 through 2019 across children’s health indicators. Kentucky did not make notable progress in curbing rates of childhood obesity, and access to pre-Kindergarten programs among children younger than 5 worsened. The data book is used to inform state-level policy decisions by providing snapshots of overall child well-being, including where children are struggling most.

In 2019, the commonwealth placed 40th in economic well-being. That year, 22% of kids lived in households with an income below the federal poverty line, an improvement from 26% in 2010. Additionally, two year ago, 31% of parents lacked secure employment, down from 37% in 2010.

This shows a marked improvement in the number of children statewide living in poverty, said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. But, “conversely you can’t possibly look at that data and not also think about the 212,000 Kentucky kids who are still in poverty,” he said last week.

Kentucky ranked 43rd in family and community stability. Though there were fewer children living in high-poverty areas (15% in 2019, down from 16% in 2012), more children (36%) lived in single-family homes. At least one parent in 11% of families didn’t have a high school diploma.

The state ranked 30th in access to education, losing ground in two key areas. In 2019, roughly 60% of 3- and 4-year-olds weren’t enrolled in any type of pre-K or Kindergarten program, up from 57% in 2009. Directly related, 65% of fourth graders were not proficient in reading, a metric that had worsened slightly from 64% in 2009.

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Kentucky ranked 35th in health. Four percent of kids (roughly 45,000) weren’t covered by their family health insurance that year, compared with 7% in 2010. There were fewer child and teen deaths per population and fewer low birth-rate babies in 2019. The rate of obesity, however, among 10- to 17-year-olds (37%) has remained unchanged since 2016.

The full scope of data isn’t available yet from 2020, during which there was historic job loss, kids attended school virtually and lost in-person support systems, and a record number of Kentuckians sought unemployment benefits. But early Household Pulse Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau show the stability of many Kentucky families was rocked, and people of color were disproportionately affected.

Overall, 15% of Kentucky households with children reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat throughout 2020. This hardship was heightened in Black households, where 26% reported not having enough to eat. Across a combination of smaller racial groups, including American Indian, and Pacific Islanders, 29% reported this struggle. By March of 2021, the overall rate of families experiencing food shortages had dropped slightly to 13%.

One in five Kentucky adults (20%) with children in their home last year had little or no confidence in their ability to pay the next rent or mortgage payment. Closer to 40% of Black households reported experiencing this, and Latinx families, 30% of the time. Earlier this year, as businesses began reopening and some were able to re-enter the workforce, the overall rate of families struggling to pay for housing had dropped to 15%, “suggesting the beginnings of a recovery,” Brooks said.

More than a quarter of adults living with kids and teenagers said their children felt down, depressed or hopeless last year.

‘Progress in jeopardy’

The collective health of Kentucky’s children has slowly improved over the last decade, albeit slowly. “When Kentucky shows improvement in roughly two-thirds of measures, we need to absolutely celebrate that,” Brooks said. “But we also can’t be content with it.”

The commonwealth still isn’t making progress as quickly as other states. “And that progress is in jeopardy unless federal and state policymakers act boldly to sustain the beginnings of pandemic recovery efforts,” he said.

One of the policies supported by Kentucky Youth Advocates that is expected to have an immediate, “game-changing” impact on close to 1 million Kentucky children is the federal Child Tax Credit, part of the American Rescue Plan Act approved last year to provide pandemic financial relief at the height of the pandemic.

Beginning July 15, an estimated 929,000 kids across the state will have access to the credit, according to the progressive-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Families eligible for the full credit can get $250 per month for children ages 6 to 17 and $300 for kids younger than 6. Married couples with incomes under $150,000 and single parents making less than $112,500 qualify. More information can be found at

More than 90% of children in Kentucky are positively impacted by this credit, which would immediately raise an estimated 66,000 children statewide (44% of kids) currently living below the poverty line above the poverty line, said Dustin Pugel, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, who called it a “once in a generation improvement.”

Both Pugel’s and Brooks’ organizations are advocating that the credit be made permanent (it expires in a year), and that the state consider enacting a state-level refundable earned-income tax credit to supplement it.

“Making it permanent would alter the trajectory of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Kentucky’s kids,” Pugel said.

Based on metrics in the 2021 KidsCount Data Book, Kentucky Youth Advocates is proposing the state financially prioritize access to high-quality child care; that Kentucky use American Rescue Plan funds as startup money for school districts to ensure there’s one school-based mental health provider for every 250 students; that Kentucky expand its school-based nutrition programs, including during the summer; and that state employees be given 12 weeks of paid family leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

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