More children are living in poverty than during the 2008 recession, and that number is growing.

That’s the latest from the 2014 KIDS COUNT report from Colorado Children’s Campaign, the annual report on the state of child health, wellness and education. Colorado has one of the fastest growing rates of child poverty, a consistent pattern since 2000.

“We are heading in the wrong direction, and quickly,” said Chris Watney, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign

The KIDS COUNT in Colorado! report is part of the national KIDS COUNT project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Colorado report.

Wide gaps, from early years on

There were few bright spots in the report, which showed wide disparities between the state’s affluent and poor students.

“Why would such a prosperous place to live be such a tough place for families?” said Watney. “It was no one factor.”

The report did show the costs of childcare outpacing families’ ability to pay for them. Enrollment by low-income families in early childhood education still lagged, even among those eligible for either state or federal aid.

That may be largely due to access, which has failed to keep pace with demand. An estimated 500 Colorado students could lose access to the federal early childhood program HeadStart, due to cuts made during the government sequester. Colorado’s state-funded preschool program served 21 percent of all eligible four years olds and 6.2 percent of all eligible three year olds. That number could increase this year, with legislative approval of additional seats.

The economic disparities don’t disappear in later years. The report found that for K-12, the state’s poorest students are concentrated in the lowest performing schools.

Schools in the state’s two lowest rankings for performance had on average 70 percent low-income students, nearly twice the percentage in the state’s highest performing schools. The report also found consistently wide academic achievement gaps between affluent and disadvantaged populations, among the widest in the nation.

Other highlights

The report also looked at other measures of childhood wellness and education. Key findings include:

  • Colorado’s graduation rate continues to increase, up to 77 percent in 2013 from 72 percent in 2010.
  • Colorado ranked as the fifth least affordable state for childcare, an improvement over last year’s fourth place ranking.
  • The state’s teen pregnancy rate continue to drop statewide, although Eagle County, which includes Vail, saw an increase.
  • In one of the positive outcomes, the number of children living without health insurance dropped to below the national average. Since 2006, 63,000 children have gained insurance.

Location, location, location

The report found strong geographic patterns in child well-being, one of the key metrics studied in the report. Douglas County ranked at the top of the state’s counties for child wellness, for the third year running.

Also for the third year in a row, Denver ranked at the bottom, due in large part to factors related to high poverty levels. Denver serves nearly a tenth of the state’s homeless students and has nearly double the state’s percent of students receiving free lunch, a federal indicator of extremely low family income. On the bright side, Denver has high rates of kindergarten enrollment, nearly 100 percent, compared with 70 percent state-wide.

While most counties saw no change in their status this year, several saw a decline in their childhood well-being score. Montezuma County, which ranked as the second worst on the metric this year, saw a decline in its status.

Although Watney and others were unsure as to the exact reasons for that decline, the county’s low ranking can be attributed to a high poverty rate and the presence of a larger proportion of American Indians, who continue to struggle on a host of both academic and health metrics.

Watney hopes the report will prompt counties to reexamine their practices.

“We are very hopeful that communities will take a deep dive into their numbers and can look at opportunities for improvement,” she said. “I think KIDS COUNT gives you a chance to compare yourself to other counties in your area.”

She also said the report has influenced the Children’s Campaign’s lobbying efforts at the state level.

“One of the policies we are focused on at the legislature is making improvements at the early childhood level,” Watney said. “For children living in vulnerable families, we believe early childhood education can really improve outcomes.”

For more on the report, see here. County-level data is available on nearly all metrics and the report covers a variety of metrics not explored here.