Vice-President Hubert Humphrey once said, "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
Pope Francis echoed that sentiment just last September, when he declared “A population that does not take care of the elderly and of children and the young has no future, because it abuses both its memory and its promise.”
So, how are we doing? On Tuesday, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published the 2014 edition of its annual “Kids Count Data Book,” which tracks our success in taking care of children according to four criteria: economic well being, healthcare, education, and family and community. The Foundation ranks states in each of these categories, and assigns an overall ranking based on those criteria. The Kids Count Data Book is free – you can download it here – and is widely used by policymakers to craft strategies designed to improve the lives of children.
Overall, this year’s report showed some improvements, but there were also important indicators of stasis and even regress, which ought to be taken as early warning signs of growing social inequality. That was particularly true in the South and Southwest, regions that together shared the bottom 15 state rankings for overall child well being. The lowest five states overall were Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and Mississippi (50). The top states overall were clustered in New England and the Midwest: Massachusetts (1), Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota.
According to the study, the official child poverty rate in the United States held steady at about 23%, or 16.5 million. That number is higher than the more comprehensive Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which takes into account public assistance programs ranging from food stamps and Section 8 housing to the Earned Income Tax Credit. Using the SPM as the measure, the child poverty rate was pegged at 17%, which is about the same as it was five years ago. Three of four poverty indicators were worse than a decade ago – no doubt a legacy of the sluggish recovery following the Great Recession – but the 2014 numbers were up slightly over 2013, which tracks with the recent modest recovery.
The four criteria for education used in the study were: children not attending preschool, fourth graders not proficient in reading, eighth graders not proficient in reading, and high school students not graduating. Trends for all four of these markers were positive, as they have been for the last decade or so. Notably, pre-school attendance by 3- and 4-year-olds is up significantly, an important sign of future educational success, and reading levels have improved across all demographic categories, including race and income.
The results were equally positive in healthcare. More children had health insurance, the child death rate was lower, and fewer teenagers were addicted to drugs and alcohol than ten years ago. The number of low-birth weight babies continued to be high, the only health indicator that has actually worsened since the Foundation began publishing their Data Book in 1990. According to the study, multiple factors contribute to low birth weight, including smoking, poor nutrition, stress, infections, and poverty. African-American babies were twice as likely as white children to be born with low birth weights. The mortality rate among African-American children was also higher than for other groups, but in a piece of good news black teens were less likely than the general population to be addicted to drugs and alcohol.
The news was mixed for family and community. The criteria in that category were teen births, single-parent homes, children living in homes where the head of the household lacks a high school diploma, and children living in high poverty areas. The explosion in single-parent homes continues apace, and as we know those homes are the strongest predictor of both childhood and adult poverty. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of children living in high poverty areas continues to increase, up from 9% in 2000 to 13% today.
On the other hand, the percentage of children living in homes where the head of the household lacks a high school diploma has fallen to 15% from its 1990 high of 22%, which along with the good news in the education category suggests we may finally be doing something right in that area. Another area of improvement was teen births, which have fallen by half since 1990 and continue to tumble annually. For Catholics, this may be a mixed blessing since the decline could be linked to wider availability of contraceptives and abortion services.
The Kids Count Data Book challenges us to look at the economic, physical, educational and family health of our children and craft public policies that will improve outcomes, not just for kids in certain geographic or income categories, but for all kids.
Here’s one way of looking at these numbers with a view toward public policy. At either end of the overall rankings are Massachusetts and Mississippi. Massachusetts ranks first in education, second in child health, eighth in family and community, and 13th in economic well being. By contrast, Mississippi ranks last in economic well being and family, and 48th in education and healthcare.
To be sure, these are states with different histories, demographic profiles, and geographic locations. But they also differ dramatically in their attitude toward funding the commonweal. According to Bloomberg News, Massachusetts has the fourth highest tax burden in the nation, while Mississippi has the lowest. Everyone loves low taxes – in fact, Bay State citizens often deride their own commonwealth as “Taxachusetts” – but the investments Massachusetts has made in education and healthcare have paid off in the form of child well being and lifelong success.
Meanwhile, Mississippi languishes, which may be proof of the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.