What state last year increased its percentage of children attending preschool, fourth graders reaching proficiency in reading and eighth graders reaching proficiency in math?
The surprising answer: Mississippi.
For the past 24 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has published child well-being rankings for every state. For most of those years, Mississippi has had a stranglehold on last place. Not in 2013. The Magnolia State saw improvements on eight of 16 indicators. Beyond the gains in education, Mississippi recorded fewer teen births per 1,000 teenagers and a lower percentage of children without health insurance, moving it to 49th on the foundation's state-by-state child well-being rankings (New Mexico fell to 50th).
The new child well-being rankings mark the first time the Annie E. Casey Foundation has made year-to-year comparisons across all 16 indicators. Before 2012, the foundation's researchers focused on 10 indicators, which gave more weight to health outcomes. The past two years includes data for four categories: economic well-being, education, family and community, and health. The nation made gains in all four education domains and all four health domains. The worst results were in economic well-being, where the country lost ground in three of four indicators. About 16.4 million children lived in poor families in 2011, a slight increase from 15.7 million in 2010, according to the report.
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New Hampshire, which has historically led the country on child well-being, was first overall again this year. But within the specific categories, the foundation researchers noted some surprises. North Dakota, for instance, scored best across the combined economic indicators, with one of the lowest child poverty rates (15 percent), lowest proportion of children whose parents lack secure employment (22 percent), lowest proportion of children living in households with a high housing cost burden (21 percent), and lowest rates of teens not in school and not working (7 percent).
The foundation researchers who collected and analyzed the data knew North Dakota and its neighboring states were benefiting from a growth in the energy sector, but "how much that means to the well-being of families is kind of surprising," said Laura Speer, the foundation's associate director for policy reform and data.
While North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, the fastest growing gross domestic product and the fastest growing personal income, the child-specific measures tracked by the Anne E. Casey Foundation actually got worse in the last 5 to 8 years. The latest data raise a question for Karen Olson, program director for the North Dakota Kids Count: Even with the boom in natural gas and oil, are residents really immune from effects of the Great Recession? Maybe not, according to Olson.
To some extent, the latest Kids Count data isn't reporting anything new. After all, the numbers are culled from existing public resources such as the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test from the U.S. Department of Education. Nonetheless, packaging that information together and framing it in a state-by-state context can make an impact on local policymakers.
Eight years ago the foundation's Kids Count Data Book found that Delaware was the worst in the country in its rate of infant mortalities. In response, then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner convened a task force to study the issue and make recommendations on how to lower the state's infant mortality rate. The state set aside $1 million in 2006 and another $2 million in 2007 to address infant mortality, establishing monitoring systems, launching public information campaigns and expanding prenatal care.
Infant mortality isn't listed among the 2013 Kids Count health indicators, but a related factor, low-birth weight, is. Between 2001 and 2005, an average of 9.4 babies out of every 1,000 had low-birth weights in Delaware, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the next five years, the average fell to 8.9 per 1,000 babies. Also, the state reduced another factor related to infant mortalities -- the rate of premature births -- according to a six-year progress report by the Delaware Health Mother and Infant Consortium.
Janice Barlow, who oversees a state branch of Kids Count in Delaware, said that since 2005 the state has seen incremental improvements in the health of newborns, but progress has been slow. Even after nearly a decade of efforts to improve outcomes, Delaware's infant mortality rate was 7.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, higher than the national average of 6.1.
Of the ongoing effort, Barlow said: "It takes a lot of work and a lot of focus to have a change."