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Marriage initiatives would help Louisiana children

The annual KIDS COUNT data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation are out and, as usual, are discouraging for Louisiana, perhaps even moreso because reforms in two major policy areas have been ongoing since 1996 in the state and nothing seems to have changed. The state ranks 49th on its ten-item index.

In 1996, at the federal level welfare reform pushed people off of welfare rolls and into jobs or training for work. The measures dramatically increased the quality of life for many as well as assisted in providing more economic opportunity that lead to overall economic growth. At the state level, Louisiana embarked upon major educational reform, stressing standards and accountability for students and for schools (although at best indirectly for the teachers themselves).

By the time this data were collected (for the most part 2003), enough of an interval should have passed for noticeable improvement in Louisiana to have occurred. Instead, on the 10 indicators used by the Foundation, from 2000 on most of them Louisiana has gotten worse. The only indicators on which any (limited) progress seems to have been made are the educational ones and a reduction in child deaths. All indicators are far inferior to U.S. averages.

So what seems to be the problem? Some clues come from the fact that an astounding proportion of children live in single-parent households, 44 percent, and that an incredible 47.5 percent of births are to single mothers – again, both way above the national average. (In fact, Louisiana’s average in 1990 on the latter was higher than the 2003 national average) Time and again data show us children in this environment will grow up disadvantaged (as reflected in many of the statistics used in KIDS COUNT) and this will place additional burdens on them into their adult years.

This is particularly true regarding, and part of the reason why Louisiana ranks so lowly is because of its relatively high proportion of, black households headed by single females. In the latest 2004 Census Bureau data, the poverty rate for black families who are married with related children under 18 was 11.8 percent, below the national overall average. For single black women with related children under 18, it was a staggering 56.8 percent. Black single women heading a household comprise 33.6 percent of total Louisiana households, and 22 percent of those with related children under 18. These relative proportions are also reflected in Louisiana’s non-black households, just at rates a little lower.

Better education and more economic opportunity help, but included in these simple facts is policy to boost the percentage of children in married households would also. Reauthorization of the welfare reform provisions at the federal level within the last year recognized this and has set aside funding for marriage initiatives. Has Louisiana taken advantage of this?

If so, it’s not at all obvious. Trawling through the 2006-07 state budget reveals a smattering of spending that might be used to promote marriage. You might argue a small portion of the $5.5 million set aside to reduce teen pregnancies could apply since most of these are from single women. Or maybe a “Community Response Initiative with a two-fold purpose of reducing poverty and assisting in the recovery of Louisianians through Community-Based competitive grants directed toward innovative programming in high risk parishes of the state” at $3.5 million total might get a few dollars directed a such programs.

But that’s about it. Contrast that with the $2,282,767 through the same budget schedule the state will dole out to a number of local nonprofits, some of which are fine organizations (such as specific Boy Scouts and Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs organizations) and others more questionable (why does the Capitol High School Alumni Association merit $250,000 for renovations and repairs to a facility for community activities, and what does this have to do with social services?), but why are state taxpayers financing these things? Especially when it could use these state dollars with federal dollars for marriage initiatives – or even the $100,000 the Foundation gives it “to coordinate reform recommendations for children and families in Louisiana?”

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