In a recent report prepared by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the 2012 Kids Count Data Book, Arkansas' children rank 42nd in the nation in terms of overall well-being. This ranking reflects measures taken in four aggregate categories: economic well-being, education, family and community, and health. Sixteen indicators were used to determine a given state's rankings within each of the four categories.

In a recent report prepared by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the 2012 Kids Count Data Book, Arkansas’ children rank 42nd in the nation in terms of overall well-being. This ranking reflects measures taken in four aggregate categories: economic well-being, education, family and community, and health. Sixteen indicators were used to determine a given state’s rankings within each of the four categories.

On the bright side, ranking 42nd represents progress from our 47th place rank last year. On the obvious downside, we’re 42nd. It’s no secret that Arkansas is often unfairly maligned in the media. For those who know and love the Natural State, the persistent caricature of us as a throng of shoeless, indolent halfwits gets old pretty quickly. Never mind the parade of Rhodes Scholars, Olympians, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and national political leaders… who have emanated from our home state.

If you see Arkansas portrayed in the media, more often than not it is some gap-toothed yokel describing how the tornado sounded.

As the Annie E. Casey report regrettably depicts, we bring some of this on ourselves. By failing to properly invest in and nurture our children, we perpetuate negative stereotypes. What’s worse, we perpetuate a real culture of systematically reinforced poverty.

For a number of interrelated reasons, poverty tends to cluster geographically. All one need do is look at the AEC map of Arkansas. The strip of counties in the most dire straights are all in the Mississippi Delta. Once ensconced, poverty tends to become a feedback loop — the gift that keeps on taking. In the extreme what results is a condition social scientists call “concentrated disadvantage.”

Concentrated disadvantage is pretty much what it sounds like: areas where the residents are systematically anchored to the bottom of the socioeconomic strata. To parse the term a little more technically, concentrated disadvantage is a measure of the relative poverty of neighborhoods. This measure captures the kinds of compounded disadvantages that can isolate a community from resources, limit the usefulness of local network ties and expose neighborhood residents to negative social conditions. Concentrated disadvantage has been implicated in educational outcomes, health, arrest rates and homicides.

This grim recitation should sound familiar to residents of Jefferson County.

Moreover, it should send a strong wakeup call to everyone interested in breaking out of our current hyper-violent malaise. Unfortunately, many of our community leaders have a demonstrated proclivity for ignoring all information and advice that does not accord with their pre-ordained political agendas. What we get instead are empty advisory commissions, phantom police initiatives, failed schools and inexplicably entrenched attachments to outmoded policy.

Ironically, AEC has given us a clear roadmap to a healthier, more prosperous and stable community. According to AEC: “The prosperity of communities across America depends on their ability to foster the health and well-being of the next generation.”

To accomplish this, AEC suggests five general strategies: Promote community change efforts that integrate physical revitalization with human capital development; Leverage “anchor institutions” to build strong, supportive communities for children and families; Promote proven and promising practices in the areas of work supports, asset building and employment; Connect neighborhood improvements to citywide and regional efforts; Increase access to affordable housing in safe, opportunity-rich communities for low-income families, particularly families of color.

None of these things will be easy. They will all take time, effort and money. On balance such outlays are far better than the alternative present course in which our children wind up doing time; the community no longer makes an effort; and the money goes somewhere else.

We have a choice. We have alternatives. We must act before any more futures are sacrificed to bad habits and old ideas.