You won’t believe how poorly metro Atlanta children are doing

Research by United Way of Greater Atlanta and community partners about the state of our children contains plenty of food for thought – some of it heartening, some downright alarming.

On the good news front, birth rates are improving in some areas like Clayton County. The region’s homelessness rate has dropped 61 percent over the last five years, making Atlanta one of the only major cities in the United States where homelessness is on the decline. And through programs like Atlanta CareerRise, more than 100 unemployed people now have jobs and 150 more have advanced in their career.

Watch United Way’s video about the needs of metro Atlanta children here

Indeed across the Greater Atlanta region, there is cause to celebrate on both the individual and agency level, said United Way’s president and CEO Milton Little Jr.

Related: how healthy are these 10 metro Atlanta counties?

But not all of the news is good. The findings, in a new Child Well-Being Index commissioned by United Way, revealed that nearly 500,000 youths across the metro Atlanta region live in neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty and lowest rates of economic mobility of any region in the country.

For instance, fewer than half of third-graders in Greater Atlanta are exceeding third-grade reading standards, 9.3 percent of children are born at low birth weights and 24.1 percent — over 282,000 – live in poverty with no food to eat.

These and other findings were outlined Wednesday at a press conference announcing the Campaign for Child Well-Being, a focused effort to improve these troubling statistics.

“We know that communities can’t thrive unless children thrive,” Little said. “Because our vision is a community where everyone can thrive, we’ve put a laser focus on marshaling and aligning resources – dollars, time and energy – to support the well-being of our communities, starting with the children. We want to see child well-being rank as high among the region’s priorities as economic development, transportation and water.”

RELATED: Here are the best, worst Gwinnett cities for child well-being

The research was prompted, in part, by annual reports released by the Annie Casey Foundation. The findings weren’t new but the overall number of children living in challenging circumstances wasn’t getting any better. They wanted to create a baseline around which to mobilize the community to set goals to improve.

The index is the first of its kind in the United Way network.

On a scale of 1 to 100, the Atlanta region’s child well-being index is at 58,meaning “this is a community in which for a host of reasons children are not faring well.”

Why should the rest of us care?

“The region’s future prosperity depends on the highest number of residents in greater Atlanta being full participants in the economy and civic life,”Little said.

From a purely economic standpoint, the Atlanta region’s well-being is tied to our children’s well-being.

Children who live in poverty face all sorts of problems, including increased risk of physical and mental health problemslike asthma and depression. They’re more likely to experiment with sexual activity, struggle academically and eventually drop out of school.

Unless we find ways to improve their circumstances, Little said, Atlanta will forever be behind the eight ball.

By releasing the research results Wednesday, Milton hoped to raise a flag on the issues our children face and issue a call to action to address the needs because all of us will benefit or pay a penalty for failing to improve their circumstances.

He believes there are three fundamental approaches the Atlanta region needs to organize around. One is prevention. Second, create opportunities for success. And third, nurture communities.

“We live in a region where one’s zip code is a significant predictor of life chances and life span,” Milton said. “Depending on your zip code, you may not have access to transportation, good jobs, good schools. We’ve got to figure out regionally how to address the deficits that exist.”

How can the rest of us help?

People can give to the causes that address the needs of children, Little said. They can give their time mentoring and reading to children and addressing some of the issues that children face. From a public policy standpoint, they can help legislators adopt policy that serve the interest of children.

Bottom line, Little said, “this is about what all of us ought to be doing to make sure every child reaches his or her full potential.”

How well we do that today will determine how well all of us live tomorrow.

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