'Stunning' rates of child hunger, education and death in Indian Country

A boy holds a kitten named Popcorn Ball in front of his home in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on the Navajo reservation on April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The Associated Press

Save the Children examined more 2,600 counties and found that about a third of the 50 worst counties are majority African American and a quarter are majority Native American

Russell Contreras
Associated Press

Isolated areas with high Native American and Alaska Native populations tend to be among the worst to suffer from childhood disparities around malnutrition, graduation rates, and early deaths, according to a new report.

New Mexico’s McKinley County, which sits on the Navajo Nation - a tribe suffering amid the pandemic - is ranked near the bottom in child hunger and graduation rates. A South Dakota county within a Lakota reservation and two Alaska census areas with high Alaska Native populations were also some of the lowest ranked.

Those inequities put these populations more at risk for the novel coronavirus, the report by Save the Children concludes.

“The Land of Inopportunity: Closing the Childhood Equity Gap for America’s Kids” report released Tuesday found that children in the most disadvantaged counties die at rates up to five times of children in the same state. Children in those counties also are 14 times as likely to drop out of school and are three times as likely to lack healthy food and consistent meals, the report said.

Using federal data from 2018 and examining more 2,600 counties and their equivalents, the report found that about a third of the 50 worst counties are majority African American and a quarter are majority Native American.

The counties and census areas of Kusilvak (Alaska), Todd (South Dakota), Madison (Louisiana), Carson (South Dakota), and Bethel (Alaska) were the five worst-ranked, the report found. Todd County lies entirely within the Rosebud Indian Reservation and Madison Parish is 61 percent black.

“These are just stunning statistics,” said Mark K. Shriver, senior vice president of U.S. programs & advocacy at Save the Children. “Children growing up rural areas, for instance, are more likely to die before their first birthday at a rate to 20 percent than in large urban areas.”

The inequality comes from the lack of early childhood education, health care, and job training options in those areas, the report said.

According to the report, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico are the lowest-ranked states for these childhood disparities.

New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire earned the highest marks.

Save the Children recommends states and local governments invest more in early childhood education programs.

The report comes more than a half-century after the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy — Shriver’s uncle — embarked on a tour across the country to highlight the nation’s most impoverished regions. Kennedy visited Mississippi and South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was transformed by the hunger and inequality he saw.

It also comes more than a half-century after President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission report, which sought to examine urban poverty and riots across the nation.

Former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, said he’s not surprised by the report since the number of U.S. residents in poverty has grown in 50 years.

“And most of that growth in poverty has been among children,” Harris said from his home in Corrales, New Mexico. “This is a great unfairness in our system.”

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