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Rod Watson: This is no time to retreat from improving life for kids

It’s not often you hear someone say how "happy" they are to live in New York, derided as among the highest-taxing states in the nation.

But at a time when a GOP Congress is trying to undo the Affordable Care Act and Donald Trump wants to take a giant pair of scissors to the rest of the safety net, a new report underscores the importance of what those taxes can accomplish – especially for children.

The 2017 Kids Count Data Book shows that the status of New York’s junior citizens has improved in nine of 16 categories – from the number dying to the number not graduating – while holding steady in two and doing worse in five. While hardly stellar – the state still ranks 30th overall in the Annie E. Casey Foundation report – it does constitute progress.

One area in which New York is among the leaders is in the number of kids lacking health insurance, which was 5 percent in 2010 but stands at just 2 percent in the new report. Nationally, the figure dropped from 8 percent to 5 percent.

The improvements stem in part from policies like the ACA and other Obama initiatives. But as Republicans plot how to take such help away, it highlights the importance of equally beneficial state policies like those enacted by the Cuomo administration, such as Child Health Plus insurance for kids.

"I have no idea what I would have done" without it, said Tiffany Rhines, recalling when she lost employer-sponsored coverage while out of work on a disability a few years ago.

Rhines, office manager for a Buffalo Niagara health care workforce organization, said her daughter and son, now 17 and 11, "may have been uninsured" without the state program. Her son has ADHD while the girl’s sports injuries were covered, leaving Rhines feeling "very fortunate to have a program like that here in New York State," despite re-enrollment hassles when she’s mistaken for a Medicaid client.

The Casey Foundation urged state and federal lawmakers "not to back away from" such targeted investments.

Sherry Cleary, co-chair of the New York State Early Childhood Advisory Council, was more blunt, saying she is "terrified" of what Washington might do.

She called the last eight years a period of dramatic investment in both early childhood programs and a coordinated infrastructure to sustain improvements. While the federal Education Department was focusing on pre-kindergarten, Health and Human Services was doing Early Head Start and the feds also were funding critical research, she said.

With all of that now at risk, Cleary is "more than ever happy to be a New Yorker," pointing to efforts like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strengthening of regulations requiring insurers to provide free contraception and his Excelsior Scholarship free-tuition plan. The state also doubled its child care tax credit and hiked the minimum wage, because one way to help kids is to help their parents.

States like New York can’t totally replace what Washington wants to take from people. But Cleary said wisely-funded efforts can help mitigate the damage until the next elections.

In the meantime, you can pick your cliche for what’s at stake for American families as Trump undoes the work of the Obama administration: One step forward, two steps back. Or maybe: Elections really do have consequences.

But when it comes to improving kids’ lives, New York also brings another one to mind: You get what you pay for.


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