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Why Kids Count Can’t Count

Opinion Editorial
January 19, 2009

By Linda Gorman

The Colorado Children’s Campaign says Colorado’s children are in trouble. In its 2008 KidsCount in Colorado! report, the Campaign claims that “poverty is the biggest obstacle to opportunity for children, and between 2000-2006, the number of children living in poverty in Colorado increased by 73 percent—the highest increase by far of any state in the nation.”

The problem is that this isn’t true. The Campaign’s numbers seem to be based on limited Census Bureau data provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count program.

The Campaign’s estimates of 2006 child poverty match the 2006 Census Bureau estimates. So how does it get a 73 percent increase?

By serving up artificially low 2000 numbers.

Using the Current Population Survey and the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau suggests that the percentage of children in poverty in Colorado was 14.2 percent in 1998, 12.0 percent in 1999, and 12.2 percent in 2000.

But the Colorado Children’s Campaign says that in 2000 child poverty was 9 percent—a lot lower than the Census estimates. The Campaign got the number from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which says its contractor used the Census 2000 Supplementary survey.

According to the Census Bureau, the 2000 Supplementary Survey included only a few Colorado counties. Those counties have relatively low child poverty rates. The limited survey may be the reason the Annie E. Casey estimate is so low. When the survey was made more representative in 2006 child poverty appeared to increase, simply because more counties with more child poverty were included.

More representative data suggest that Colorado child poverty rates have likely increased a bit since 2000, not an unexpected result in a state with an expanding economy that has been attractive to immigrants, both legal and illegal, for much of the past decade.

Of course, neither the Children’s Campaign nor anyone else really knows how poor children are doing in Colorado.

Official poverty statistics only measure money income. They ignore benefits like food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid. Colorado could give every poor person in the state free housing, food, transportation, health care, education, entertainment, and clothing and the official poverty statistics would be unchanged.

The Children’s Campaign wants to reduce poverty by spending lots of money on free preschool. This approach will enrich teachers and school bureaucracies. It may or may not help children, as results on the effects of preschool are decidedly mixed. What it certainly will not do is reduce official rates of poverty.

To do that, you have to actually give money to the poor.

Linda Gorman is the director of the Independence Institute’s Health Care Policy Center and author of the new issue paper Kids Count! Report Showcases Misleading Child Poverty Numbers.