RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The share of North Carolina children growing up in poverty has continued to shrink, new data indicates.

But a children’s advocacy group worries about what could happen if the programs that have helped their families are allowed to end too soon.

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Fewer than 43 percent of children in the state lived in poor or low-income homes in 2020 — a drop of two full percentage points before the COVID-19 pandemic, and of five points since 2016, according to data released this week by NC Child.

Vikki Crouse, a policy analyst for the group, attributes that drop to direct cash assistance — in the form of stimulus checks — and the other state and federal COVID relief actions.

“I think we see now that we have evidence about what policies work,” Crouse said. “It might be too early to end them.”

While those rates have gone down, the raw number — nearly a million children — is still a big one, and those percentages swing wildly between the counties.

They also mirror those county rates of food insecurity cited previously by another nonprofit that worried that ending child nutrition waivers for schools and daycare centers put into place early in the COVID-19 pandemic would send more kids into poverty and food insecurity.

The North Carolina counties with the lowest rates of child food insecurity also have the lowest child poverty rates, and vice versa.

Even the best-performing counties — Orange and Wake — have reported about a quarter of kids in poor or low-income conditions.

But in Scotland County — where nearly a third of kids deal with food insecurity — more than 7 in 10 also lived in poverty in 2020.

“Something that’s been so helpful about being able to break down data by county, and now by race and ethnicity, is being able to see the variance across counties,” Crouse said. “We know when we’re thinking about pandemic recovery, we can be able to speak to those big differences.”

The organization includes 15 metrics — from the rates at which babies have a low birth weight to how many children die per capita — and the latest update is a mixed bag with seven showing improvements from 2019 to 2020 and eight getting worse.

“What we saw from the data is that these pandemic-era policies really made a difference in protecting families from the worst aspects of poverty,” Crouse said.

A much higher share of women received early prenatal care — 73 percent, up from 67.5 percent a year earlier — and the rate of children in food-insecure households dropped to 18 percent after it was above 19 percent in 2019.

But fewer children were assessed for abuse or neglect on a per capita basis — 43 of every 1,000, compared to 48 a year earlier — and it’s fair to wonder if that is because fewer children physically in school buildings meant fewer chances for teachers to spot the signs of abuse.

And just 45 percent of third-graders were proficient in reading in 2020-21, compared to nearly 58 percent in 2016-17, in an apparent sign of learning loss due to many schools going virtual during the pandemic. 

“It confirmed what a lot of us were suspicious of, which is that the pandemic seriously disrupted learning for our kids,” Crouse said.