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In urban Kentucky, more than two in five Black children live in poverty

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More than one in five Kentucky children are growing up in poverty, but in the state's most urban counties, Black and Latinx children are especially impacted.

According to data released Wednesday by Kentucky Youth Advocates, 205,000 children — more than 20% of the state’s youth population — live in a household that earns less than $26,000 a year for a family of four. And nearly half of Kentucky’s children are living in households with annual income below 200% of the federal poverty line. 

The commonwealth had the fourth-highest child poverty rate in the nation in 2019.

“What would happen if certain basketball teams in the commonwealth were rated in the bottom third of all Division I programs? We would not be very happy,” said Terry Brooks, KYA’s executive director. “And yet, that's exactly where Kentucky kids are on a national basis.”

A deeper look reveals children of color are more vulnerable, especially in major metro areas. The data show that 42% of Black children in the state’s urban centers of Jefferson and Fayette Counties live in poverty. The same is true for Latinx children in Fayette County. 

That means a Black child in Louisville or Lexington is nearly four times as likely to be living in poverty than white children who live in the same areas. 

The high rate of poverty for Black and Latinx children who live in Jefferson and Fayette Counties is nearly the same as the overall child poverty rate in the state’s six poorest counties: Lee, Wolfe, McCreary, Owsley, Clay and Bell. All are in southeastern Kentucky.

“Individuals and children of color are faced with more significant barriers to housing, financial success, education at all levels, healthcare, employment and ultimately a bright future,” said  Shamitha Kuppala, a high school senior and mental health advocate in Louisville. “And these disproportionate obstacles create a cycle.”

While Kentucky’s overall child poverty rates have improved, dropping 5% since 2014, advocates said there continue to be significant racial disparities that need to be addressed statewide.

Brooks said decades of policies and practices have impacted the opportunities for families of color to earn higher wages, build equity and pass that financial success on to their children. Specific barriers include racial gaps in educational access and an overrepresentation of Black workers in low-wage jobs. These obstacles also lead to higher rates of mental health problems and emotional distress.

“All kids face a long climb in their journey to adulthood, but kids of color have to climb a steeper hill due to longstanding inequities and specific barriers based on their skin color or country of origin,” he said. “When we invest in what all children need and tailor additional support for children who face greater barriers, each Kentucky kid will have a brighter future.”

Given the cost of housing, food and transportation, most families need an income of at least twice the official federal poverty level to cover basic needs. In Kentucky, the median household income for Black families with children is $39,600, $45,600 for Latinx families, $41,200 for families of two or more races and $69,300 for white families.

And the pandemic hasn’t helped. 

According to the data, Kentucky’s Black families were more than twice as likely as white families to not be able to pay for housing during the first year of the pandemic. In addition, one in five children of color experienced food insecurity last year.

“We have to be intentional about this,” said state Senator Gerald Neal of Louisville. “This data collection is important. We must acknowledge the racial and class disparities and address them head on. And the legislature has a particular responsibility in that regard, in terms of how we do policy.”

Advocates say state- and federal-level change can address these systemic disparities, starting with policies that work to close income gaps, strengthen assistance programs for low-income families, invest in child care infrastructure and expand the federal Child Tax Credit.

Research conducted by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, earlier this year found that expanding the Biden administration's Child Tax Credit would decrease child poverty in a typical year by 40%.

“The significance of this data lies in one key fact, I would say, and that is that kids count,” Kuppala said. “Every single Kentuckian experiences childhood and we can't let their potentials be diminished by externalities like location, like poor health care, or institutional inequities or race.”

Jasmine Demers is a  Report for America corps member. Contact Jasmine at 502.814.6547 or  jdemers@kycir.org.

Jasmine Demers is an investigative reporter for LPM covering youth and social services. She is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Jasmine at jdemers@lpm.org.