Arizona Ranks In The Bottom Five In The US For Child Well-Being

October 11, 2013

To expand or not to expand Medicaid. That was the core question in Arizona’s 2013 legislative session, whether more low-income Arizonans would be eligible for state-supported health care coverage, and that coverage can have a huge impact on poor kids in Arizona. The Valley-based Children’s Action Alliance marked its 25th anniversary this week. CEO Dana Naimark said the organization exists because kids can’t speak up for themselves.

"Kids don’t vote, obviously. They don’t donate money to candidates. They can be easily ignored in the political process," Naimark said. "So our job, along with thousands of Arizonans from every walk of life, every field you can imagine, is to be a voice for children, to be there speaking up for kids and making their needs known and part of the main debate about what we do in Arizona."

"Are there certain years, in certain sessions, where you’re more welcome and others where it’s, ‘Oh god, here comes Dana?'" I asked.

"I hope that last part isn’t too often, but it definitely does happen," Naimark laughed. "I think that goes along with how bipartisan the state is at any given time. It is so true that kids win when both parties are working for kids, and of course, everybody from every party cares about children. It’s a matter of what we do together."

The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book put together by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranks Arizona in the bottom five in the U.S. for child well-being. Laura Speer is the foundation’s associate director for policy reform and advocacy.

"Four out of the five states in the bottom of our rankings were states in the Southwest. Arizona was ranked 47th, and New Mexico was ranked 50th. What stands out in the Southwest certainly is the economic well-being domain," Speer said. "That is a leading indicator, and we find that poverty rates are higher and employment rates are lower. We also see in the areas of education that there are not as many kids attending preschool, which we know can make a big difference in long-term outcomes for kids."

Naimark said Arizona has earned its reputation but adds that it is not because the general population does not care about kids.

"But we tend to have a political culture that does not put kids first. That’s for a lot of reasons. Part of it is how fast we grew, how people move here from other places and then move out again," Naimark said. "What are our roots? What are we reaching for in the future? Part of it is our whole western mentality, of picking yourself up by your bootstraps. That’s a hard mentality to govern kids’ issues, because you can’t really pick yourself up by your booties."

"Have you found there are certain methods that have worked well, certain concepts that have worked well? Does that change from year to year?" I asked.

"That does change. We always look at the economic impact and the costs, but some years people are more interested in that argument. So the whole issue about paying a little bit now or a lot more expensive crisis later, that resonates differently in different years," said Naimark. "I think overall just linking how kids are doing today to the future prospects of our state, and the more ways we can find to bring that idea to light, the better off we are."