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U.S. Children Better, Worse Off as Economy Recovers, Report Finds

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Children are still feeling the toll of the economic recession's toll, despite a recovering national financial landscape.

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that more children were living in poverty in 2011 than 2005, more children were living in homes where parents don't have full-time, year-round jobs, and more children were living in single-parent households.

The Baltimore-based philanthropy's latest KIDS COUNT report, published today, does show some promising trends, too. In 2011, more high school students were graduating within four years of starting on the paths to their high school diplomas, the teen birth rate was at a historic low, and more children had health insurance coverage than in 2005, the report found.

Nevertheless, "the economic data clearly speak to the considerable challenges we still face," said Laura Speer, the foundation's director for policy reform and data, in a press release. "We need to do better and be smarter about investing in effective programs and services to help ensure all kids get the best possible start in life."

Specifically, the report found 3 million more children—16.4 U.S. kids in all—were living in poverty in 2011 compared to 2005. More children—20 percent more than in 2008—live in homes where parents don't have full-time, year-round jobs. And more kids—nearly 25 million in the U.S.—live in single-parent households.

The report emphasizes a familiar recent call to action: investing in young children in particular. Starting with his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama has been calling for a greater investment in early childhood education, a message his administration has been relentless about ever since.

Yet the proportion of U.S. children attending preschool dropped slightly over four years—going from 56 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2011. And the poverty rate among children younger than 3 was 26 percent in 2011, the report says. For 3- to 5-year-olds, it was 25 percent. That compares with 12 percent of children of all ages who were living in poverty in 2011.

In the report's foreword, foundation President and CEO Patrick T. McCarthy said providing more early childhood education options alone is not the answer to improving child well-being:

"Too often, low-income parents struggle to gain and retain employment. Many experience violence and trauma, battle substance abuse, and have physical and mental health problems. Given the enormous influence that parents have on their children, especially when those children are infants and toddlers, we need to find better ways to support parents of young children. Early childhood strategies alone will not successfully reduce disparities among children; we must also assist their parents."

The foundation's report, which it has drafted for 24 years running, measures several indicators of children's well-being, basing those ratings, including state rankings, on a variety of sources, including data from the U.S. Census, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. States are ranked in four separate ways: child well-being, education, economic well-being, and health. Children's health and economic status have been linked to their ability to do well in school.

In a ranking of states, for the first time, New Mexico came up last in the rankings for child well-being. Mississippi has always been ranked the worst, until now. The states were fairly even, but Mississippi performed better in areas including the number of children attending preschool and those whose parents lacked a high school diploma.

New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts had the best child well-being and education ranks, but the Dakotas and Wyoming beat out other states for children's economic well-being. Maine, Connecticut, and Wisconsin came in at the top of the list for being best for children's health.

You can search the report's database and learn more about the conditions for children in your state.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

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