By Rhonda Holman
October 21, 2015

There is little to cheer in the 2015 Kids Count data for Sedgwick County, nor to justify the County Commission’s recent decisions to spend less on programs affecting the health and nutrition of poor children.

Released Tuesday by the Topeka-based group Kansas Action for Children, the report found 22.06 percent of children younger than 18 in Sedgwick County living in poverty as of 2013 – a slight dip from 2012 but 3.6 percent more than statewide and nearly 4 percent more than in 2009. Nearly 60 percent of public school children countywide participated in the free or reduced-price lunch programs in 2014-15, up 5 percent year to year, and the average monthly enrollment of county children in the Kansas Food Assistance program in 2014 was up by 1,394.

Even so, average monthly enrollments last year found 741 and 399 fewer Sedgwick County children receiving benefits, respectively, from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Child Care Assistance programs. As explained in a news release from local nonprofit Child Start, that is “not because fewer children are in need, but because fewer families can meet the more stringent eligibility guidelines implemented by Kansas over the past five years.”

And though the number of poor kids in the county has increased, the capacity of early education programs Head Start and Early Head Start has not. The report also found Sedgwick County moving the wrong way on on-time childhood immunizations over the past few years, amid some encouraging trends in the rates of prenatal care, infant mortality, low birth weight babies, uninsured children, violent deaths of teens, and high school graduation.

“This data should be of concern to all of us who understand that helping children early in life leads to success and that not doing so leads to higher rates of incarceration, lower employment opportunities and earnings, as well as higher rates of drug abuse, depression, and behavior problems that affect school success,” said Teresa Rupp, executive director of Child Start, in a statement.

With so much room for improvement across a range of indicators of the health and well-being of Sedgwick County’s children, the wonder is that the current County Commission could have voted this year to spend less on the Women, Infants and Children program, health education, immunizations and curbing infant mortality.

Commission Chairman Richard Ranzau, who also unsuccessfully tried to eliminate three part-time breast-feeding counselors, left no doubt again at Wednesday’s meeting that he thinks millions of tax dollars are being misspent in the county on health programs that don’t work.

“We have to come to terms with reality that we have to take responsibility for our own lives,” he said, adding that the county’s public health responsibilities should be limited to contagious diseases and disasters.

If Ranzau’s ideology prevails at the county for long, the reality portrayed by the Kids Count data seems unlikely to change.

Read more from the Wichita Eagle.