Things are improving, but there’s more to be done.
That was the overall message of this year’s State of the Children address, hosted by United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce. United Way uses its Child Well-Being Index to condense 14 community factors that affect what contributes to a child’s development into a prosperous adult. The Greater-Atlanta area score improved from 58.9 in 2016 to 61.8 in 2018, the organization’s most-recent report.
Still, data shows there are roughly 500,000 children in the region with scores that rate as low to very low well-being.
“Our region is one of the largest regions in terms of suburban poverty,” United Way’s Vice President of Strategic Impact Ginneh Baugh said.
Stakeholders filled an auditorium at the John D. Maxwell Leadership Center at 12 Stone Church in Duluth to hear new data of childhood well-being in the county and how their companies and organizations can support its improvement. The discussion centered around early learning, homelessness, food insecurity and health care.
Through partnerships, collaboration and advocacy, Gwinnett County’s childhood well-being score has risen from 61.8 to 64.4 in two years. Baugh credited the increase to improved high school graduation rates, a decline in mothers without high school diplomas and access to health insurance. Cities across the county aren’t necessarily seeing the same gains, however.
Lawrenceville’s score of 64.2 is an improvement despite the city facing high rates of poverty compared to other regions. While Norcross has seen a 2.3-point increase, it’s overall score is a dismal 47.9. Baugh indicated the city is seeing improved college readiness for students but increases in families with a high housing cost burden.
“We know there are still gaps to close, but we’re confident we can make that change,” Baugh said.
Representatives of civic organizations provided input and data in regard to what factors could improve childhood well-being dramatically in the area.
Audry Arona, CEO of the Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton District Health Departments, said there are three primary concerns she and her colleagues see that create the biggest disparities in quality of life in the region: infection disease, infant mortality and mental health.
Gwinnett County’s HIV infection rate is higher than that of the average rate in the U.S. The county’s tuberculosis infection rate is higher than both the state and national rates. Arona said the department’s plan to reduce the rate is to “universally test everyone,” for prevalent infectious diseases and implement treatment and preventative measures.
Arona said infant mortality rates in the region increased from roughly five infant deaths for every 1,000 births in 2012 to nearly eight per 1,000 births in 2016. With regards to mental health, deaths linked to suicide and opioid overdose have seen similar spikes in the region.
Arona said a system of coordinating organizations connecting community stakeholders with avenues to support the health department can contribute to a community-wide collaborative approach to improving health care.
“We need your talents, your business efforts and advocacy,” Arona said. “I know we can do it, if we do it together.”
Homelessness in Gwinnett County may not be as apparent as Greater Atlanta’s urban areas, but it is prevalent. Matt Elder, director of HomeFirst Gwinnett, said there are an estimated 10,000 homeless people in Gwinnett County and roughly 50 percent are children. He said the county’s rate of homelessness is exacerbated by the lack of an operating shelter and inefficient response protocols.
Homeless children, he said, are twice as likely to “go hungry” and struggle in school — homeless students have an 87% dropout rate. He also said roughly 25% of homeless children will witness a traumatic, violent act — battery, rape, assault — which affects their emotional behavior.
HomeFirst Gwinnett was founded by the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners in 2018 with a simple mission: to end homelessness. The vision to fulfilling that mission, Elder said, is more complex. Since its creation, the organization has cultivated 80 local partners in public, private, nonprofit and faith-based sectors.
“(Our partners) signal we’re at the tipping point,” he said. “We need to take this opportunity to take this tipping point and move forward.”
The organization has been able to use data to target where services will be most-needed and effective. The organization celebrated the opening of a new Assessment Center in Norcross that is located in the heart of the homelessness epidemic.
When children grow up in families that don’t know where their next meal will come they are more likely to miss developmental milestones and have low academic performance, Community Foundation of Northeast Georgia board member Bill McCargo said. Malnutrition in mothers also leads to low birth weights, placing infants behind the eight ball from their first breaths.
McCargo said 10% of Gwinnett County — roughly 90,000 people — are considered food insecure. The highest rates are concentrated in zip codes near Norcross, Lawrenceville and Centerville in the southernmost part of the county.
The county’s 42 food banks are strategically placed in areas that need the most help. Jon West, vice president of Atlanta Community Food Bank, said missing meals — provided by those food banks — have gone down 39% since 2014. Gwinnett County, though, has the second most hungry children in the Greater Atlanta area.
“There is plenty of food, but we lack systems to connect people at the right place and time,” McCargo said.
West said investments can build the capacity of the food bank network.
“We believe in Gwinnett County and want to be a part of what’s happening,” West said.
Executive Director of Innovation and Program Improvement at Gwinnett County Public Schools Babak Mostaghimi said 52% of children begin kindergarten unprepared with regards to reading and counting. So facts can be hard to believe.
“When you have a child who doesn’t know their own name, that’s a really big gap,” he said. “When you have a child who’s never seen a book before, that’s a big gap. … Yeah, that happens every day.”
Kim Holland, director of early learning and school readiness at GCPS, said high-quality education programs and resources for parents of young children can improve school readiness. The Gwinnett Early Learning Community Working Group is a coalition of more than 35 organizations that collaborate to provide these services and resources.
It’s a problem that’s not only prevalent in low-income portions of the county, he said. It’s everywhere. Gwinnett County elementary schools see at least 15% of their kindergarteners begin school unprepared. In 44 of the district’s 80 elementary schools, at least 50% of kindergartners begin school unprepared.
Randy Redner, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia said it’s aligned priorities with local Gwinnett organizations to continue to make progress and prevent regression of child well-being in the region.
In 2017 the Community Foundation for Northeast Georgia partnered with United Way of Greater Atlanta and the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services to mobilize volunteers and raise funds for nonprofit organizations and government entities to improve and eliminate problems that stem from poverty.
Baugh said person-to-person advocacy can sometimes be the best motivator to encourage business partners to support the vision of making the region safer for children. A text from a stakeholder, she said, can start a conversation that leads to future partnerships.
“Say, ‘Hey have you seen this data?’ And connect them back to us at United Way,” Baugh said.