Although the Valley's child population has decreased in recent years, teen birth rates are on the rise.
Courier staff writer
ALAMOSA — A deep concern for the future of Colorado’s children filled the room on Wednesday afternoon.
Over lunch, Valley childcare and human welfare workers, The Early Childhood Council of the San Luis Valley and SLVhealth.org welcomed the Colorado Children’s Campaign (CCC) 2012 Kids Count in Colorado data presentation at the San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center Conference Center. CCC Research and Policy Analyst Sarah Hughes introduced statistics in child well being in Colorado counties; Colorado child demographics; family economics; child health; early child development and learning; education and specific county data, revealing news good, bad and indifferent, and a purpose to make change. The CCC believes measurement enables transformation and its two decades of research to communicate information about the life quality of Colorado’s children are a continual resource for state lawmakers and child advocacy organizations.
“With all of Colorado’s natural and human resources, our children are still our state’s greatest asset,” wrote Gov. John Hickenlooper in March in support of the CCC. “By staying informed about how kids are faring and working together to support them, we can ensure a bright future for all Coloradans.”
Babies don’t choose poverty
Colorado’s child population grew almost 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, which is more than 1.2 million children. Hughes explained a growing child population is a positive trend because an aging workforce will need replacing in the future.
In the Valley, however, child population is down. Between 2000 and 2010, Conejos County dropped 13 percent; Costilla County 20 percent; Mineral County 41 percent; Rio Grande County 13 percent and Saguache County 16 percent.
“This is not unusual,” Hughes said. “We are seeing this in a lot of rural areas.”
Alamosa County’s child population is 59 percent Hispanic and 38 percent non-Hispanic White compared to the state average of 58 percent non-Hispanic White and 31 percent Hispanic. Data was not presented for the other five counties.
Contrary to the child population decline, the Valley is home to more teen mothers and teen birth rates are on the rise. In 2010, about 69 out of every 1,000 teen girls in Alamosa County between the ages of 15 and 19 had a baby, up from 52 in 2000. The trend continues: Conejos County saw 57.6 per 1,000 in 2010; Costilla County saw 37.4; Rio Grande County saw 74.4 and Saguache County 72.5. The 2010 statewide average was 33.1. Data was not available for Mineral County.
“A lot of girls don’t feel they have any other opportunities,” Hughes explained. “When they see others having babies in their teenage years, this is what happens.”
Babies born in Colorado are more likely to enter poverty than most states. The number of Colorado children born into poverty - a family of four sustaining on $22,300 or less - more than doubled between 2000 and 2010. The Valley poverty trends are some of the highest in the state, but have shown some improvement. In 2007, Alamosa County had 30 percent of children living in poverty versus 29 percent in 2010, more than 1,100 children. Conejos County had 31 percent of children living in poverty in 2007 versus 28 percent; Conejos County 15 percent versus 17 percent; Mineral County 11 percent versus 37 percent; Saguache County 46 percent versus 37 percent and Rio Grande County saw no change at 29 percent.
In the Valley, it costs about twice the poverty level to meet the basic needs for a two-parent family with an infant and a preschooler. The CCC claims poverty causes toxic stress, which is stress that is strong, frequent or prolonged like physical abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and other environmental conditions, poverty breeds. Lack of financial resources and the circumstantial repercussions are associated with developmental delays during childhood and health problems like heart disease, diabetes and substance abuse later in life.
“Having these things for a short time early on has lifelong impacts,” Hughes said.
Childcare is the largest monthly expense for many Valley families. The same size family pays approximately 21 to 34 percent of their overall living expenses for childcare. In Alamosa County, childcare is 25 percent of monthly expenses, about $1,043; 23 percent in Conejos County, $868; 26 percent in Costilla County, $1,063; 23 percent in Mineral County, $1,085; 23 percent in Rio Grande County, $907 and 28 percent in Saguache County, $1,194. According to the Colorado Self-Sufficiency Standard, the cost of childcare for a two-parent family, with an infant and a preschooler is 27 percent of estimated basic living expenses, $1,259 per month.
Insurance, food and performance
The CCC found in kindergarten, children from poor or near poor families score below their peers on skills like counting, identifying basic shapes and recognizing letters. Fewer than half of all children in poverty are school-ready at age 5, compared to 75 percent of children in economically stable families. By age 3, children with college-educated parents or primary caregivers had vocabularies two to three times larger than those whose parents had not completed high school. The gap in the number of words parents spoke to their children widened over the years, resulting in a difference of almost 30 million words between children in families receiving welfare and children in professional families by the time a child was 3 years old.
“It is harder to narrow the achievement gaps,” Hughes said. “We have found preschool helps diminish these gaps.”
There are many other factors affecting a child’s academic success. Hughes highlighted the impacts of child health insurance, hunger and obesity. According to the CCC, uninsured children miss more school, hungry kids struggle to learn due to shortened attention spans and childhood obesity is linked to decreased academic achievement. The latter is connected to lower test scores in comparison to leaner counterparts and obese children are more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to go to college.
In 2010, more than 550 Alamosa County children were uninsured, about one in every seven, significantly higher than the statewide average. The same year, 336 Conejos County children were without health insurance; 147 Costilla County children; 32 Mineral County children, 497 Rio Grande County Children and 237 Saguache County children.
Hughes attributed the high numbers of uninsured Valley children to a decline in private health insurance options and credited state programs like CHP+ and Medicaid for providing a buffer.
Many children living in poverty without health insurance are often without nutritious and regular meals. Low-income families more often experience lack of access to fresh, healthy foods due to inadequate resources or difficulty getting to supermarkets; cycles of food deprivation and overeating; fewer opportunities for physical activity and high stress levels. In all six Valley counties, 28 percent of families rely on low cost food. Again, Hughes credited state programs for stepping up in times of hardship.
Although children are going without food, obesity is on the rise. One in four children in Alamosa County were considered overweight or obese in 2010.
“Here in Colorado, we don’t think about this very often,” Hughes said. “We are one of the healthiest states, but this is a growing problem. We see there is a strong connection. Children in poverty are overweight.”
Adequate access to early education is also a factor in diminishing gaps. State resources are strapped, making available preschool space almost non-existent. In 2010, 85,000 Colorado children under the age of 6 living in poverty qualified for Head Start. The program filled with 13,244 early education students.
“Access is not keeping up with the need,” Hughes said. “There are more families that need programs, but few have access.”
In Alamosa County, the reading achievement gap between poverty level students and their peers was 26 percentage points in 2011 versus the 30 percentage points state average. In Conejos County, the gap was 14 percentage points, 21 percentage points in Costilla County, 10 percentage points in Mineral County, 22 percentage points in Rio Grande County and 32 percentage points in Saguache County.
Valley students are able to attend the school of their choice regardless of county lines, making the CCC’s county reading level report questionable, but not invalid. In 2011, 40 percent of Alamosa County fourth graders were not reading at grade level compared to the 35 percent state average. Conejos County came in at the lowest, 29 percent. Costilla County has 68 percent not proficient, Rio Grande 42 percent and Saguache a startling 90 percent. Data was not available for Mineral County.
The same research approach was used in tracking Valley graduation rates. In 2011, Alamosa County had a 77.9 percent graduation rate; Conejos County, 90.8 percent; Costilla County, 86.4 percent; Mineral County, 100 percent; Rio Grande County, 71 percent and Saguache County, 81 percent despite its low fourth grade reading proficiency mark.