A new report released Thursday ranks Texas 43rd in overall child well-being based on measures of education, financial security, health, and community factors, down from 41st in 2016.

Of the 7.4 million children in the state, 21 percent live in poverty, according to the 2018 State of Texas Children Report, issued by Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), a progressive nonprofit that analyzes state-level socioeconomic data. The report is part of the Kids Count Project, a state-by-state effort to track the status of children in the United States funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national advocacy group for child well-being.

The biannual report, funded by Methodist Healthcare Ministries (MHM), was released less than two months before the start of the 86th Texas Legislature’s session, with the goal of educating lawmakers as they navigate funding decisions. In addition to poverty, health insurance access, and educational outcomes, the 2018 report focuses specifically on the importance of an accurate census count, the number of immigrant families with children in Texas, and the effects of childhood trauma, said Kristie Tingle, research analyst with CPPP.

“What we try to look at is whether over time are we seeing big trends in improving outcomes for children – or are the gaps getting worse? The goal of the report is to take data and turn it into more of a narrative as to why these numbers look the way they do, and how we can change it,” Tingle said.

According to the report, Texas’ child population is booming in both urban and rural areas – an additional 2 million children expected throughout the state by 2050 would bring its total to 9.2 million. Billions of dollars in federal aid depend on the accuracy of the U.S. Census, the report states, and being undercounted by even 1 percent could result in a loss of up to $300 million a year in federal funding for Texas.

Because one in four children in Texas currently live with a non-citizen parent or family member, the report raises concerns over how “heated rhetoric regarding immigrants” might impact contact with public systems due to fear of deportation or family separation.

“We have to look at these numbers and see that one in four Texas children are being affected by immigration policies in place, and whether we are hurting these children who are going to be the future of Texas,” Tingle said.

Kori Eberle manages the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s Healthy Start Program, which supports pregnant and post-partum mothers. She said uncertainty about healthcare benefits and concern over any potential negative consequences related to immigrants accessing such services impacts their willingness to seek help.

“People are not accessing the assistance that they normally would because they are afraid that accessing those benefits are going to be used against them,” she said.

The CPPP recommends removing barriers to well-being for children in immigrant families by improving access to educational, medical, and nutritional resources. In light of the recent family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, it further recommends keeping children with their parents as a means to improve both physical and mental health.

The report’s focus on children’s mental health is a response not only to family separations, but also to trauma happening in schools across the country, as mass shootings and bullying remain prevalent, said Christine Yanas, director of governmental affairs with MHM. She told the Rivard Report that state representatives are expected to author legislation that will address both short- and long-term concerns.

“I think that we are going to see legislation being filed, and then budget committees are going to look to see about putting more counselors in schools immediately. They are also going to look at younger children to see how we can prevent” mental health crises, Yanas said.

One in four Texas children has experienced two or more adverse childhood experiences, such as physical or emotional abuse or separation from a parent, according to the report, but those effects can be mitigated by coordinating trauma supports across sources such as schools, welfare organizations, and healthcare facilities.

“This is going to be the third [Texas legislative] session where a big focus is on mental health,” Yanas said, noting the focus on jail reform two sessions ago, and expanding services to rural areas in the last session. “This third wave of mental health is focused more on kids because of all of the trauma happening in schools” and in the home.

In 2017, more than 63,000 Texas children were confirmed victims of child abuse or neglect, with 5,588 cases taking place in San Antonio, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. “Legislators are relying on data like this to fund [prevention] programs and determine what kids’ needs are,” Yanas said.

Texas consistently ranks among the bottom 10 states regarding children’s health and well-being, according to the report.

“What we ideally want to see is these numbers getting better and better, and to see the State of Texas catch up nationally,” Tingle said. “Unfortunately on most indicators of child well-being, Texas isn’t even doing average.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.