Gazette opinion: Poverty, health gaps hinder many Montana students

2013-08-26T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Poverty, health gaps hinder many Montana students The Billings Gazette
August 26, 2013 12:00 am

Most Montana schoolchildren will be back in class by the end of this week. Are they ready to learn? Do they get needed health care, including preventive care? Do families have resources to provide for their children?

The Montana Kids Count 2012 Data Book provides considerable food for thought, starting with the youngest citizens:

 One in four Montana children under age 5 isn’t adequately immunized against serious, preventable diseases, according to the latest annual report, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The report is prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

 One in 10 Montana children under age 5 lacks health insurance. That’s an improvement over 2000 when 16 percent of Montanans in that age group were uninsured.

 Seventeen percent of Montana children under age 5 lived in poverty in 2000. The proportion grew to 25 percent in 2009 before dropping to 23 percent in 2011.

How did Montana cover more youngsters with health insurance even as a greater proportion of young families sank into poverty during the Great Recession?

Healthy Montana Kids, a state voter-approved program, expanded Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover more low-income and middle-income kids who otherwise would be uninsured. HMK enrollment increased from 62,500 in 2008 to 90,040 in 2012, covering 38 percent of all the state’s children under age 19.

There are still thousands of uninsured children, including many who would qualify for Healthy Montana Kids if their parents enrolled them.

Poverty is a fact of life for 16 percent of Montana children age 18 and under, according to Kids Count. Their families have an annual income of $23,050 or less for a family of four people. Other low-income statistics from Kids Count show:

 The percentage of Montana children living in extreme poverty doubled between 2000 and 2011, from 4 percent to 8 percent. Extreme poverty is 50 percent of poverty level or an annual income below $11,500 for a family of four people.

 36 percent of single-parent households live in poverty, compared with only 8 percent of married-couple families in poverty.

 Between 2001 and 2012, the proportion of Montana school kids enrolled in the free/reduced school meal program increased from 32 percent to 41 percent. A large number of Montana children depend on school breakfasts and lunches for most of their daily nutrition.

This is a time of year when we naturally focus on the quality of K-12 education. This should also be a time to pay attention to factors outside the schools that have a profound impact on student success in class and in life. To be ready to learn, kids must be healthy, well nourished and properly cared for long before they start kindergarten.

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