New data was released last week for the 2016 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Data Book, which measures the well-being of children across the nation, uses four key domains to assess how kids are faring: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. The Data Book focuses on trends over the six-year period from 2008 to 2014, comparing states on their progress by issue area and then ranking them.
This year’s report opens by highlighting the positive developments for families and children that the past few years have brought. The authors explain that, “economic growth has been steady, with nearly 13 million new jobs created since the end of the recession. More children have health insurance. The high school graduation rate is rising, and fewer teens are abusing drugs and alcohol. Births to teenage mothers continue to decline and are at a record low.” These are all important developments.
However, the very next page of the report reveals that when digging a little deeper, the growing economic instability of American children and families becomes evident, despite being several years into the recovery.
For example, even though the employment rate has been increasing, in 2014, 30 percent of children lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. The data also show that nationally, 22 percent of children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line in 2014—the same rate as in 2013. As a point of reference, the official poverty level in 2014 was $24,008 for a family of two adults and two children. This high percentage of children living in poverty is especially concerning, given that growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development.
Further, future prospects of workers with a high school diploma or less are growing ever bleaker. In 2014, 14 percent of children lived in households headed by an adult without a high school diploma. A college degree is now required for most middle income positions, but rising higher education costs and a shift in financial aid away from needs-based grants to loans has made post-secondary education out of reach for many low income students. High school grads who were lucky enough to find a job earned, on average, $10.66 an hour, which was less than wages in 2000 when adjusted for inflation. These barriers to higher education and better wages make it even more difficult to escape poverty.
In line with our country’s legacy of racial inequity, the report also reveals that children of color continue to face significant barriers to their success. On nearly all of the measures in the report, African American, American Indian, and Latino children continue to experience negative outcomes at higher rates than the national average. The data found that African-American children were twice as likely as the average child to live in high-poverty neighborhoods and to live in single-parent families. American Indian children were twice as likely to lack health insurance coverage, and Latino children were the least likely to live with an adult who had at least a high school diploma.
These trends, which impede progress for children of color, are especially disturbing given that demographers predict children of color will be the majority of all children in the United States by the end of this decade. They are already the majority in 12 states. Thus, it is important that we ensure all young people have the tools they need to fulfil their potential, regardless of background.
The report also shows strong variation among states. The authors write that “a child’s chances of thriving depend not just on individual, familial, and community characteristics, but also on the state in which she or he is born and raised.” States vary considerably in the amount of resources they have and state policy choices strongly influence children’s chances for success. For the second year in a row, Minnesota ranked first among states for overall child well-being, followed by Massachusetts and Iowa. The three lowest-ranked states were Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi.
Comparing the state data from Minnesota and Mississippi, paints a picture of what it might be like to be a child growing up in one state versus the other. While 15 percent of Minnesota children lived below the poverty line in 2014, 29 percent of Mississippi children lived below this indicator. One in ten Mississippi teens were not in school and were not working in 2014, which is more than double Minnesota's rate; and a third of Mississippi high schoolers did not graduate on time. A concerning 27 percent of Mississippi’s children lived in high-poverty areas compared to six percent in Minnesota. And almost half of Mississippi children lived in single-parent households, which are much more likely to experience poverty.
As the paper Strengthening Ties by New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy initiative notes, “Children born into families rich in both money and social capital have an increasing advantage over children whose families lack the social knowledge and financial means to navigate the world of quality early childhood settings, extracurricular learning activities, higher education, advanced technology, and complex professional networks.” Thus in order to improve the wellbeing of all children, policymakers must address the economic obstacles facing families in poverty.While much of the data are dismal, there are some successes worth celebrating. It is no small feat that this generation of teenagers and youth are breaking records in education and health indicators despite growing up in the midst of the economic downturn. It is also critical to acknowledge, however, the negative impact that declining economic opportunities and experiencing economic hardship can have on children growing up in low-income households. It is time to correct this failure— to step back and redesign the way social policy for families is made from its inception. By applying the principles of Universal Design, as discussed in New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy Initiative's paper Designed to Thrive, we can prioritize ideas and experiences from real families in order to reenvision social policy in support of the universal need that all families share for security, opportunity, and time.