A new national report finds that black and Hispanic children, nationwide and in Tennessee, trail far behind their white and Asian peers on measurements of academic success, health and economic well-being.
The report points to a strong correlation between poverty and race, but also shows that Tennessee children of all races lag behind their peers in other states across the board.
"Poverty is concentrated in the minority races," said Terri Combs-Orme, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work. "Children of color basically have all the disadvantages you can think of that contribute to poor success, in school and in life."
Poverty, she said, created what could be the single biggest barrier to success.
Altogether, Tennessee children ranked 32nd among all states. But the core of the report separated children by race to examine how poverty, violence and other factors contribute to racial inequality.
In Tennessee white children scored almost twice as high as Hispanic and black children on a 1,000-point scale, yet they trailed far behind white children in other states — ranking 44th.
The report details 12 measurements, including birthweight, eighth grade math proficiency, rate of teen pregnancies, whether children live in two-parent families and percentage of children growing up in poverty, among other scores.
Combs-Orme said a growing body of research shows poverty causes the most stress on the brains of young children, making early childhood support programs especially important for nurturing development.
"It becomes harder and harder over time because the brain develops from the bottom up, and each part of the brain relies on a pretty healthy foundation," she said.
The state's Asian and Pacific Islander children scored the highest overall — 774 out of 1,000 — and scored above the national average for Asian children on many measurements, including fourth grade reading proficiency and graduation rate. That group was below average for preschool enrollment.
Although lower than their peers of other races, Tennessee's black teens ranked ninth in the nation for graduation rate.
Tennessee as a whole scored better than the national average on only two measures: on-time high school graduation and the number of children living in homes with at least one adult with at least a high school degree.
Responding to the report, leaders with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth said efforts already underway could make a difference, pointing to home visitation programs for families with infants and quality preschooling as keys to success.
Nationwide, Hispanic children were found to be least likely to live in a home with a parent with a high school diploma. Black children are most likely to live in high-poverty areas and homes without two parents.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation report, "Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children," arrived just four years before census projections anticipate that the majority of children born in the U.S. will be minorities.
"We just can't write them off any longer," Combs-Orme said. "It's not to our economic benefit."