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A 50-State Tour of Child Well-Being: A race to the bottom?

Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that ours is a big—and varied—country.  Our larger states have populations comparable in size to those of many nations.  Thus, national-level data can only ever tell part of the story of our well-being.  The child in Louisiana and the child in Minnesota may have some things in common, but their experiences surely diverge according to the unique cultural and policy environments in which they grow up.  While children nationwide might watch the same TV shows, and visit the same chain stores, states or regions still retain traditions of values, customs, and practices that vary—for better, and for worse—when it comes to children.

One of the few organizations keeping regular tabs on how well children are thriving in the states is KIDS COUNT.  (Many of Child Trends’ DataBank indicators include links to KIDS COUNT state-level data.)  Our KIDS COUNT colleagues deserve congratulations on their 23rd annual Data Book released last week. This year it debuts a new Index incorporating four important child well-being topics.[1]  Sixteen indicators now represent the areas of health, education, family and community, and economic well-being.  All 50 states are now ranked on each of these separate domains, as well as on overall child well-being.

It is revealing to see the variability in how children are doing according to these separate domain scores, not only among states, but even within a state.   KIDS COUNT’s interactive “data wheel” (http://datacenter.kidscount.org/databook/2012/DataWheel.aspx) is a nifty way to quickly grasp some of this variability.

Or, imagine a 50-state tour, where you pull over to examine a few points of interest related to well-being in early childhood:

Among the notable “divides” by state is the percentage of three- and four-year-olds not attending preschool.  Research to date speaks clearly to the lasting value of good-quality early learning experiences—for all children, but especially for those with socio-economic disadvantages.[2] Yet, consider the difference between New Jersey, where a third (36 percent) of young children do not attend preschool, and Nevada, where more than seven in ten (71 percent) do not.

Another example: Low birth weight—a major contributor to infant mortality and to a number of developmental deficits—is unacceptably high in the U.S.[3]  We—not Sweden and Korea—should be the world leader in preventing low birth weight.[4]  And why is Maine’s rate 6 percent, while Louisiana’s is nearly double that?

There will be numerous “takeaways” from this latest collection of information, many depending on the state where you live.  But one sobering fact is that eight of the ten states that are home to the greatest number of children are in the bottom half of the overall ranking.  This is part of a disturbing trend: the states that have, and/or are gaining the most children, are those where well-being is worst;[5] that is a sorry “race to the bottom.”  I don’t think we want the success of our children to depend on the state they happen to grow up in.  If KIDS COUNT can shine a light on these inequities, this tour will have been well worth the effort.

-David Murphey
Senior Research Scientist

[2] Early Childhood Program Enrollment. (2012). Child Trends DataBank.  http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/alphalist?q=node/100

[3] Low and Very Low Birth Weight Infants. (2012).  Child Trends DataBank. http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/alphalist?q=node/67

[4] UNICEF. (2008).  State of the world’s children.  New York: Author.

[5] O’Hare, W. (2011). The changing child population of the United States: Analysis of data from the 2010 Census.  KIDS COUNT Working Paper.  Baltimore, MD: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.


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