Is Rhode Island Failing its Children?

Friday, October 14, 2011


Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the country, but it faces big challenges when statistically compared to its New England neighbors in a number of child well-being measurements. With an economy on the ropes, and news being dominated by budget shortfalls and a pension crisis, is Rhode Island doing enough to ensure that it’s moving in the right direction with our young people – tomorrow’s leaders?

Rhode Island Kids Count

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For nearly twenty years, Rhode Island Kids Count has been providing independent and comprehensive data on the well-being of our state’s children. Each year, the organization collects and disseminates this data through its Factbook; using statistical analysis to compare Rhode Island with its neighboring New England states and national averages. Through this analysis, Kids Count offers a portrait of where Rhode Island shows improvement, along with the areas that still need work. By looking at the community-level indicators that emphasize the significance of the surrounding physical, social, and economic environments in shaping outcomes for children, the data shows that Rhode Island has a long ways to go in a number of areas.

The Most Single-Parent Households in New England

In today’s society, single-parent households have become more prevalent than ever, especially here in Rhode Island. Surprising to many, the Ocean State holds the distinction of more children living in single-parent households than any other state in New England, and at a rate higher than the national average. In Rhode Island, 36% of the state’s children live in single-parent households, a number that has steadily increased in recent years.

In comparison, New Hampshire has a rate of just 25%, followed by Massachusetts at 29%, Connecticut and Vermont at 30%, and Maine at 31%. In fact, the number of Rhode Island children living in single-parent households has increased by nearly 13% during the last decade. As more and more of Rhode Island’s children grow up in homes without both parents, they face the additional hardship of financial barriers that create lasting impacts on their future well-being. According to Kids Count, children who grow up in single-parent families are at an increased risk for low academic achievement and are likely to earn less income as adults.

“With the job forecast as it is, having less than a high school diploma is a prescription for living in poverty,” commented Elizabeth Burke Bryant, Executive Director of RI Kids Count.

Many RI Children Live in Poverty

While Rhode Island’s economic struggles and high rate of unemployment have been well-documented, they have also helped to create an insurmountable hole for many families to climb out of - one that is likely to leave a lasting mark on Rhode Island’s next generation. In addition to our state staking claim to the largest percentage of children living in single-family households, Rhode Island also has the highest rate in New England, tied with Maine, for the percentage of households with children where no parent has full-time employment. Across the state, 31% of Rhode Island children live in homes without a full-time working adult, and one in five children grow up in poverty.

“Research shows that childhood poverty has a profound impact on a child’s physical, emotional, and educational outcomes leading into adulthood,” commented Kate Brewster, Executive Director of The Poverty Institute. “From an economic standpoint, it also hinders the state’s ability to grow its economy, as studies show childhood poverty can lead to decreased worker productivity and earnings.”

While the numbers relating to how many children grow up in homes without a full-time working adult are staggering, even in families where there is parental employment, low wages cause many to remain in poverty. According to the Poverty Institute’s 2010 Rhode Island Standard of Need, a report published every two years to document the economic needs of Rhode Islanders in meeting their basic needs, a single parent with two children who works full-time year-round at minimum wage and who receives all public benefits for which the family is eligible, will still be $170 short of affording basic expenses each month.

“Increasing the state’s eligibility for child care assistance, and investments in affordable housing would go a long way in closing the gap between low earnings and expenses,” added Brewster. “A child’s income depends on their parent’s ability to get a good job. Rhode Island should be making bold investments in skills training to increase the employability and earnings of the adults who don’t have the skills to meet the demands of today’s jobs.”

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Underperforming Schools

A strong education is perhaps the single most effective tool to ensure that children will grow up to lead productive, self-sufficient lives. In particular, reading skills are critical to a student’s academic success in, and an indicator of a student’s future ability to succeed in the workforce. Unfortunately, while Rhode Island has demonstrated improvements in the reading proficiency of its 8th grade students, it still ranks last in New England for the percentage of those who scored at or above proficiency levels.

“I think those who are focused on our state’s well-being, and on creating a strong workforce for the future, identify education as the primary determinant of our economic future,” said Burke Bryant.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 28% of the state’s 8th grade students are reading at or above their respective proficiency level.

“Though we are last in New England in 8th grade reading, to put this in perspective we are near the national average and showing early signs of progress,” commented Deborah A. Gist, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. “For example, our high school students this year outperformed their peers in New Hampshire and Vermont in reading and writing.”

Rhode Island also has the lowest high school graduation rate among New England states, with just three out of every four students graduating within four years of entering. With high school graduation a minimum requisite for college admission and most employment opportunities, particularly those which offer competitive wages and opportunities for advancement, Rhode Island is at-risk of missing the mark in strengthening its future workforce. In our state, adults without a high school diploma are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed and have an annual income 31% less than those with a high school degree.

“We need a state in which every adult feels responsible for the education of all of our children and in which students themselves have a voice and commitment,” added Gist. “The goal of our strategic plan, ‘Transforming Education in Rhode Island,’ is to ensure that all of our graduates are prepared for success in college, careers, and life. We have set several targets, including raising the graduation rate to 85% by 2015.”

According to Gist, there are five priorities driving the strategic plan to meet its goals: Ensure educator excellence, Accelerate all schools towards greatness, Establish world-class standards and assessments, Develop user-friendly data systems, and Invest wisely in resources.

“Over the past two years, we have made a lot of progress on each priority through such initiatives as our new educator-evaluation system, our intervention in the persistently lowest-achieving schools, our adoption of the Common Core State Standards, and the approval of the funding formula for aid to education,” explained Gist. “We will continue to look into ways to support our teachers and school leaders and to bring more innovative programs and initiatives to our schools.”

High Numbers of Incarcerated Parents

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For every 1,000 Rhode Island children under the age of 18, the rate of those with an incarcerated parent is 10.4%. According to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, of 2,641 inmates surveyed, 67% reported having children, with the total number of kids affected being 3,342. This results in significant economic impacts on Rhode Island’s future.

As a result of parental incarceration, children face social stigma, disruptions with temporary caregivers and foster care, and levels of financial hardship that exceed those of children in other at-risk groups, such as those from single-parent homes. Additionally, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, children with parents in prison present complex cases for child welfare agencies and often spend more time involved in the legal system; increasing the costs imposed upon the state. Making matters more difficult, and increasing the likelihood that they may burden society as adults, children of incarcerated parents represent those highest at risk for demonstrating aggressive behavior.

What Does the Future Look Like?

According to a recent study conducted by the Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce, two-thirds of all future jobs will require a college education. With Rhode Island lagging behind its peers in high school graduation rates, there is plenty of ground to be made up in order to move forward.

“Issues that relate to the percentage of reading proficient students, high school graduates, and even those of children with incarcerated parents, all lead back to what our state’s future will look like,” commented Elizabeth Burke Bryant. “Education should be the foremost economic focus of our state. Investments made in children’s education today, ones with measurable outcomes and accountability can curb far more expensive social costs from being incurred in the future.”

As Rhode Island sets its sights on righting the ship for today, and for the future, are there enough resources to address the state’s many financial issues while also making the necessary investments in education that many see as a critical driving force for success?


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