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Children in the Mississippi Delta often have to walk to churches or schools in the summer to receive meals. Credit: Emrys Eller for The Hechinger Report

In hundreds of America’s poorest counties, children deal with food insecurity, interrupted educations and violence at rates that can rival international hot spots like Cambodia and Iraq. And the devastation wrought by the coronavirus will likely only worsen these conditions for children.

These are the findings of a new report released by Save the Children, which analyzed data on food insecurity, high school graduation rates, adolescent birth rates, and child death and infant mortality rates for counties nationwide. Counties were ranked based on these data to highlight the places where childhood is most “protected” and the places where it is most threatened.

Forty percent of children growing up in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana experience food insecurity, which is a rate comparable to countries like Bangladesh and Peru and higher than the rate in Egypt and Mali

“Kids should be playing and learning and protected in an environment surrounded by family and friends,” said Nikki Gillette, a researcher with Save the Children. “So when children are deprived of that, it launches them into adult roles far too soon.”

The findings are the accompaniment to a global report by Save the Children that compares data on childhood for 180 counties. That report found the United States “trails nearly all other advanced countries in helping children reach their full potential,” and tied for 43rd place with China and Montenegro. Last year, China and the United States tied for 36th place.

The America-specific report found stark disparities in how children are faring across the country and within states. Here’s a look at some of the major findings:

  • Forty percent of children growing up in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana experience food insecurity, which is a rate comparable to countries like Bangladesh and Peru and higher than the rate in Egypt and Mali. The rate is more than six times higher than in Slope County, North Dakota, which has the lowest child hunger rate in the country.
  • Wisconsin, Virginia, Georgia and Minnesota posted some of the biggest gaps in how children fare; all four states had counties that were on the top 50 and bottom 50 lists.
  • Children in America who live in rural counties fare far worse than their urban counterparts. Forty-six of 50 bottom ranked counties are rural and only three rural counties are ranked in the top 50.
  • Child poverty rates in the 50 lowest-ranked counties are five times higher than the rates in the 50 highest ranked counties.
  • Children ages birth to 14 in the most disadvantaged counties die from illness, poor health, accident, murder or suicide at rates up to five times those of children in the highest ranked counties.
  • The hunger rate in the lowest-ranked counties is 3 times higher than children in higher ranked counties.
  • A child growing up in a disadvantaged county is up to 14 times more likely to drop out of school or repeat grades.

Research shows low income families, and especially mothers, have not only been hit harder by the country’s economic collapse due to coronavirus, but also have largely been left out of federal relief packages, which means these conditions will likely get far worse. “You have these women working in industries that are traditionally underpaid and undervalued,” said Quianta Moore, a fellow in child health policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, who co-authored a report on coronavirus and low-income mothers in April. “Because of the pandemic, society has placed this added value in their work but they’re not receiving a real increase in their wages.”

“We know that the coronavirus pandemic didn’t cause any of these challenges that are facing children today. But it certainly has exacerbated those challenges and really highlighted and exacerbated those equity gaps.”

Betsy Zorio, Vice President of Save the Children’s U.S. Programs & Advocacy.

At the same time, many families have lost child care, which makes it impossible to work; or they have lost their jobs, which may also mean losing health insurance. While one federal coronavirus-related aid package created sick leave for workers, experts point out that large companies are exempt, which includes many organizations, like grocery stores, that employ low-income workers.

As families continue to be impacted financially, experts are concerned children in America, especially those who are already at risk, will only face greater rates of food insecurity, housing insecurity, stress, learning loss and neglect. “We know that the coronavirus pandemic didn’t cause any of these challenges that are facing children today,” said Betsy Zorio, Vice President of Save the Children’s U.S. Programs & Advocacy, on a call with reporters. “But it certainly has exacerbated those challenges and really highlighted and exacerbated those equity gaps.”

To improve conditions for children, researchers recommend more funding for programs like Head Start and the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, as well as more funding for the Child Care Development Block Grant, which help low-income families pay for child care. The authors of the report also call for wrap-around services that address mental and physical health as well as nutrition and housing.

You can read the full report, which includes more policy and funding recommendations, and see an interactive map of this data here.

This story about Children in America was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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