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Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth report shows one in five kids in poverty

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Laura Olivas

Nearly one in five Tennessee children live in poverty, a measure of well-being that varies sharply by geography:

In rural northeast Lake County, for example, the number of children living below the poverty line is double the state average; meanwhile in wealthy Williamson County, fewer than 4% of children are being raised under such economic strains.

The data, released Tuesday by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, paints an uneven portrait of Tennessee’s children in county-by-county snapshots that also measure rates of low birth-weight babies, educational outcomes, childcare costs, child abuse and family circumstances.

County poverty rates coincide with other stressors facing families with children. The ten counties with the highest rates of poverty for kids also are among those with the greatest rates of low birth-weight babies, child care cost burdens and food insecurity, according to the agency’s annual 2023 County Profiles in Child Well-Being, which measured 52 different metrics that impact the states’ kids.

The high poverty rates straddle both rural and urban areas. Among the top 10 counties for child poverty are Shelby and Davidson, which include Nashville and Memphis, the state’s largest cities. Small-population counties of Haywood, Hardeman and Madison Counties in west Tennessee and Campbell in eastern Tennessee also have outsized numbers of poor children.

The report also revealed wide educational disparities.

A child living in the lowest performing county was half as likely to be proficient in TCAP reading than the state average, the report found. A child in Perry County was far more likely — by a factor of nearly 10 — to be absent from school than a child in Blount County.

The disparities also extended to rates of child abuse and neglect, a data point that could signal either higher incidents of harm — or differing levels of investigations or enforcement actions by state child welfare officials or local law enforcement.

Clay County had the highest rate of substantiated abuse or neglect at nearly 34 per 1,000 children. Moore County had the lowest at 0.8 per 1,000.

“These county profiles always serve as a reminder that the experience, opportunities, and access to positive outcomes can look vastly different for each child in Tennessee," said Richard Kennedy executive director of Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

The report is released annually by the commission, an independent state-funded entity responsible for providing objective analyses and serving as a watchdog for the Department of Children’s Services.

The commission earlier this year survived an effort backed by the administration of Gov. Bill Lee to dissolve it, after it released a critical report on the DCS’s work.

This story was originally published by the Tennessee Lookout.

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.
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