Children's health and education are showing positive signs even in the midst of a dismal economic environment, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual ranking of child well-being, released this morning.
The 23rd-annual Kids Count Data Book represents an overhaul of the Baltimore-based group's historically health-dominated 10 benchmarks. This year the indicators have been expanded to "holistically measure" child well-being, incorporating 16 measures of health, education, economic well-being, and family and community support, according to Laura Speer, an associate director for advocacy reform and data at the foundation. The data from different indicators are not necessarily comparable, however, as they span different comparison years based on the most recent state and federal information available.
Researchers found education and health are on the upswing across all benchmarks, though gaps still exist between children of different racial groups, and Northeast and Midwestern states score well above states in the Deep South and Southwest.
Children with health insurance increased 2 percentage points to 92 percent, from 2008 to 2010, while child deaths dropped 16 percent between 2005 and 2009, from 32 to 27 deaths per 100,000 children. The number of babies born below healthy birth weight held steady.
Moreover, "Even in this time of economic decline, education got better," Speer said. Five percent more children—or 47 percent—attended preschool, and the percentage of 4th and 8th graders reading proficiently and the number graduating high school on time also rose.
"If I had to make one big bet, I'd ensure every child is reading proficiently by 3rd grade," said Patrick T. McCarthy, the foundation's president and CEO. "We know this is a pivot point, that up until 3rd grade children spend a lot of time learning to read, and after 3rd grade they basically are reading to learn, relying on their reading skills to do well. If a child is not reading well by the end of 3rd grade it becomes increasingly difficult for them to catch up to their peers."
He said that while there isn't a silver bullet to improve literacy, research does point to reading achievement gaps caused by differences in school readiness, general attendance, and summer learning loss. "You put those three things together and they are all things we can do something about."
Of little surprise, children's economic picture was bleaker. The study found 22 percent of children under age 18 living in poverty, up from the 19 percent in poverty in 2005, representing 2.4 million more children in families with $22,000 or less a year for a family of four. Likewise, 41 percent of children lived in homes with a high housing cost, up 4 percent since 2005. And since the economy plummeted in 2008, 27 percent more children—now one in three—has no parent with full-time, year-round employment.
Moreover, "Poor kids and kids of color continue to fall behind their more affluent and advantaged classmates," McCarthy said. "In 2010, American Indian and black children, both at 49 percent, were nearly twice as likely as white children to have no parent with secure employment. This is a very bad sign for those who care about opportunity for those children."
Casey researchers found several signs of improvement for families overall. Teen births continued to tick down, from 40 out of every thousand children born in 2005 to 39 births per thousand in 2009. And only 15 percent of children in 2010 lived in homes with a parent who has less than a high school diploma, 6 percent fewer than in 2005. Yet poor children increasingly live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
"Where a child grows up can make a huge difference" McCarthy said. "A low income child growing up in a flourishing community is more likely to thrive and succeed. That same child in poverty who lives in a community with a high concentration of poverty where most of the neighbors are also poor is far more likely to get off-track in school become involved gangs and fail to gain successful employment. So, investments that focus on improving neighborhoods can help provide a foundation for children's future."
Speer agreed in a briefing with reporters on Monday: "This is especially troubling because growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development and it can really affect everything from their cognitive development and their ability to learn to their social and emotional development and their overall health."
The study comes on the heels of similar new child well-being data released last week by the the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics; it also found that fewer children are the victims of violent crimes.