Child poverty rates are falling in the region, a positive sign for long-term public health, according to new health rankings.
Social and economic factors, such as child poverty and educational achievement, have the largest impact on a community’s health, said Janna West Kowalski with County Health Rankings, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Public Health Institute.
“Employment and social support all significantly affect how long and well we live,” said West Kowalski.
The County Health Rankings released this week found La Plata County is 16th among 64 counties in Colorado for health outcomes, a measure based on how many poor physical and mental health days community members experience and how long residents live. It’s a measure meant to indicate how healthy the community is right now.
La Plata County ranked 11th for health behaviors, a ranking based on residents’ habits, available medical care, socioeconomic factors, and quality of the environment. The ranking is meant to measure how healthy the county will be in the future.
“It is wonderful to be a community that is ranked high,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health. However, a high ranking doesn’t mean all residents in the community are enjoying good health.
“We as a public health agency still have work to do around having everybody achieve better health,” she said.
Montezuma County was ranked 50th out of 64 counties for its current health and 54th for health behaviors and other factors that will determine the community’s future health, the rankings found.
“Rankings are really designed to be a call to action and a conversation starter,” said West Kowalski.
The rankings also show both counties are seeing falling rates of childhood poverty, a measure that contributes to a community’s current and future health.
The trend is positive because children in poverty face an increased likelihood of living with chronic diseases as adults and shortened life expectancies, said Sarah Wilhelm, an economist and board member for the It’s About Kids Committee, a La Plata County group that works to improve services to children and families.
In La Plata County, the rate has fallen from 15 percent in 2012 to 11 percent in 2017. In Montezuma County, the rate of child poverty has fallen steadily from 32 percent in 2012 to 25 percent in 2017.
The change is likely driven by the improvement in the economy and not other long-term systemic change, she said.
“We see these swings in child poverty that go hand-in-hand with recessions and recoveries,” she said.
However, not all racial groups are experiencing poverty at the same rate, so there is still room for concern, Wilhelm said.
In La Plata County, 13 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty and 7 percent of white children live in poverty.
In Montezuma County, 47 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty and 18 percent of white children live in poverty. Data was not available for Native American students in either county.
In La Plata County, the It’s About Kids Committee has advocated for full-day kindergarten to help improve early education. All-day kindergarten could improve children’s ability to achieve in school and earn more in adulthood, she said.
“It just sets every kid up for a better educational experience and boosts their development,” Wilhelm said.
Funding for full-day kindergarten statewide is a priority for Gov. Jared Polis this year.
In Montezuma County, residents are working on improving food security, preventing child abuse, increasing use of behavioral health care and improving early childhood education, said Lauren Lacourciere, coordinator for Team UP, a project organized by United Way of Southwest Colorado.
The efforts that could help improve the county’s long-term health started in 2015 and involve 45 agencies and about 120 people, she said.
The focus on early childhood education can help decrease poverty in the community by increasing a child’s educational achievement later in life, she said.
“Early childhood education is pivotal to decreasing poverty in the long run,” she said.
One Montezuma County team is working to increase awareness about the importance of childhood education through a marketing campaign. Another team plans to distribute new devices to families that will help them measure how much the adults are talking to young children in their families and encouraging them to increase how much they are speaking to them, she said.
The more conversations a child hears, the more prepared they are for school, Lacourciere said.