Data Book Sheds Light on Conditions Affecting Children, Community

In "Data Book 2013: The State of Children in Memphis & Shelby County," The Urban Child Institute explores social and economic conditions affecting optimal brain development for babies ages zero to three, and subsequently outlines critical areas that need improvement.

Research findings show that the environment and community in which a child is born and raised contributes greatly to her future well being, while the health and well-being of its children determines a community's future.

Now in its eighth year of publication, the "Data Book" includes improved community health statistics for Memphis and Shelby County that offer cause for pause and abbreviated celebration.

But other figures serve a stinging reminder of just how much more work is required to build a thriving community that prioritizes the well-being of its youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Numbers don't lie

Community health determines the strength of the local economy, which in turn, determines how well positioned a city is for success.

Statistically, birth outcomes are a key indicator of overall community health. In recent years, Memphis made headlines for having the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, with criticism likening its poor birth outcomes to some third world countries.

According to the latest census figures, 246,887 children currently reside in Shelby County and Memphis has over 48,000 children under five, representing nearly a third of all residents under 18.

New figures found in the "Data Book" reveal that between 2009-11, the infant mortality rate in Shelby County declined by about 25 percent. This reduction reflects advancing efforts to expand access to quality care and resources to support expecting and new mothers as well as women of reproductive age.

The percentage of Shelby County mothers receiving no prenatal care continues to decline, and dropped to 5.6 percent in 2011 from 8.9 percent in 2009.

In other good news, The Urban Child Institute reports that over the past five years, the birth rate for teenagers has also declined by 26 percent.

Two years ago, the high teenage pregnancy rate in Shelby County hovered between 15-20 percent and sparked a sensational media frenzy following a surge of pregnancies that occurred at Frayser High School. Shortly thereafter, government and community leaders introduced the "No Baby" campaign. The initiative, presented by Girls Inc., garnered nationwide attention and placed renewed local focus on eliminating teen pregnancy.

New reality

While community health statistics for Memphis and Shelby County are still not ideal, improved figures prove that through collaborative, committed, and sustained efforts, progress is possible. But for the sake of our children, who will someday take the reins of leadership, we must pick up the pace and do a better job of healing the biggest sore spot.

Poverty continues to play a leading role in the "Data Book" storyline, and in predicting future outcomes for Shelby County. Thirty-nine percent of Memphis children live in poverty and more than half of Shelby County children are considered poor or low-income.

According to The Urban Child Institute, children born into poverty or low-income families face a greater risk of experiencing turmoil, violence and instability in their homes and/or neighborhoods. When these factors are present during the first three years of life, they can hinder optimal brain development and cause emotional, social, behavioral, and academic challenges that span a lifetime.

While research shows that it is still possible for children to thrive despite early economic hardship, achieving future financial independence and security will prove to be more challenging. A recent study conducted by economics professors from Harvard University and the University of California-Berkeley found that a child from a family living at or below the poverty level in the Memphis area has only a 2.6-percent chance of ever earning a six-figure income.

This revelation in itself is devastating, but it also shows that as current statistics stand, more than half of the children who currently live in Shelby County will have to work extremely hard as adults to beat the odds stacked against them during childhood, and still may never catch up to their more-fortunate peers.

Looking ahead

What can be done now to ensure that more children are prepared to excel, and also increase Shelby County's potential for success? Improving education outcomes and eradicating poverty are undoubtedly the greatest obstacles to tackle and overcome.

While progress in these two areas may seem elusive, there are small action steps that government and community leaders and residents can take to address both simultaneously. As research shows that a child's brain reaches 80 percent of its adult size and weight by age 3, parents of young children are encouraged to engage in activities to nurture and stimulate healthy development such as touching, talking, reading, and playing.

But the responsibility of preparing kids for a lifetime of achievement requires a community-wide effort and should not fall solely to parents. Studies show that communities that support early childhood development programs that promote school readiness, like pre-k, see an average of $5 returned for every $1 invested. Children who attend pre-k earn higher grades in school, which ultimately leads to increased chances for college attainment, higher earnings, and better overall quality of life.

To pull out of the quicksand in which existing economic and social conditions have placed our community, we must continue and increase individual and collective efforts to build and sustain a local talent pool with the knowledge and skills to put it on solid ground.

Tarrin McGhee is the owner of Pique Creative.

This article was originally posted online by The Tri-State Defender: