Health care and education are two areas where policy makers can make strides to improve the overall well-being for Latino children. (Photo/Getty Images )

Health care, education key to combating rising poverty rates among children, say experts

Poverty remains a high-priority issue for the country and continues to impact Hispanic children,  as the rates of poor children has continued to climb even as the nation’s unemployment has declined, states a new report.

According to an annual report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 23 percent of American children lived in poverty in 2011, a 19 percent increase in poverty levels since 2005. Latino children are disproportionately impacted by the increase of overall poverty levels as well, with 34 percent of Hispanic children living at the poverty level; a 2 percent jump from 32 percent in 2010.

The increase in poverty levels within the span of just one year comes as the national unemployment rate went down from 7.5 percent in 2011 from nearly 9 percent in 2010, states the Kids Count survey. But 39 percent of Hispanic children “lacked parental employment,” researchers found; a 7 percent increase over the national average of 32 percent.

And the recession has hit states with high Hispanic populations – and their residents under 18 – extremely hard as the survey shows that New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California are among the ten worst states for overall well-being of children.

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Experts say education and health care remain two areas where policy makers can combat poverty rates among Latino children, as preschool enrollment, literacy, high school graduation rates, health care access, drug abuse level and mortality rates are all tied to overall well-being.

“Lack of health care and education go hand in hand when it comes to the poverty level among children,” says Myriam Torres, PhD, professor and director of the Consortium for Latino Immigration Studies at the University of South Carolina.  “When it comes to health care, our health care system is overwhelming for Americans – not to mention for immigrants. They may not know what type of care their baby is entitled to as a U.S. citizen and the language barrier often impacts care or the lack thereof. Investment in care and community health organizations to educate Latinos about care is something that’s very much needed.”

Citing the fact that Hispanic children have the lowest number of low-birth weight babies (7 percent) of any other ethnic group and the closest to that of the national average (8.1 percent), Dr. Torres says that it’s clear that Latino children begin life healthier – the key is to improve health care and educational access afterwards.

“Research shows that our babies are the better off than other ethnic groups, despite the fact that our socioeconomic situation is in general, much worse,” explains Dr. Torres. “We need to continue to create free, sliding scale health care and urgent care facilities where poorer people can go for care, and not feel that they will be broke for life after a visit. Our population, especially here in South Carolina, has seen the benefit of this type of system but more facilities that meet the needs of the uninsured need to be created.”

And when it comes to education, Latino government officials like New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez are taking action. The governor has advocated for doubled investment in pre-kindergarten programs and is also calling for additional funds for state programs across early literacy and high school graduation efforts.

“Clearly, doing things the way they’ve always been done hasn’t worked for our kids,” Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the governor told NBC News. “And reform efforts must include ending the practice of setting our children up for failure by passing them on to the next grade level when they can’t read.”

The well-being of children should be considered without political ties or affiliation, says Dr. Torres. “There are many needs and a lot of work to be done,” she notes.

“And I hope that health care practioners, politicians and educators can work together to accomplish what needs to be done for our children.”

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