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What the data tell us about being in a kid in America
Some things got a little better and some things got worse, but where you live makes a huge difference. - photo by Eric Schulzke
The best state to be a kid is Minnesota, followed by Massachusetts and Iowa, according to the 2016 Kids Count Data Book compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The worst state to be a kid is Mississippi, followed by New Mexico and Louisiana.

The annual scorecard looks at four key areas of child well-being economic, education, health and family & community and then looks at four key data indicators under each of those headings. Under education, for instance, the report looks at young children not in school, fourth-grade reading competency, eighth-grade math scores, and on-time high school graduation.

This report compares 2008 to 2014, picking up at the beginning and end of the Great Recession.

Taken as a whole, the nationwide data is encouraging, says Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy with the Casey Foundation.

"There have been some pretty dramatic improvements among teens," she said.

Speer said these positive results are especially striking because kids being sampled in 2014 lived through a sustained period of economic difficulty. "They've broken lots of records on the data we track. The teen birth rate is at its lowest point in history, high school graduation rates are at record highs, and there has been a significant decline in drug and alcohol use among teens."

There are a handful of key areas where child welfare metrics have weakened, however, including children in poverty, in single-parent homes and those whose parents lack secure employment.

And then there are some areas where the Casey report signals improvement, but other data sources either conflict or point to troubling nuances. Teen drug and alcohol use is down overall, but binge drinking remains a serious problem. And data showing lower teen death rates (due to a drop in homicides and accidents) masks rising suicide rates.

One thing the Casey report does not do is break the data down to see how different states are doing within different vulnerable populations. For example, given that African-American and Hispanic children face more challenges on average than Asian or white children, it might be useful to know which states perform better with those vulnerable populations.

"That would be a different conversation," Speer said, adding that the Casey Foundation's concern is just to signal where greatest needs are.

Five areas where things got better for kids from 2008 to 2014...

1. Drugs and alcohol. Teen drug and alcohol dependence or abuse dropped from 8 to 5 percent, according to data from National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This is the number of teens with serious addiction issues disrupting their lives, not the number who reported some use. If these numbers seem unduly low, it's because they are using a strict standard of addition/dependence.

By way of comparison, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that in 2104 13.8 percent of underage respondents had engaged in binge drinking, defined as "drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on at least one day in the past 30 days." And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2013 1 in 5 high school seniors reported engaging in "binge drinking" at least once in the past two weeks.

2. Child and teen deaths. Child and teen deaths per 100,000 dropped from 29 to 24. The most deadly states were Mississippi and Louisiana. The safest were Connecticut and Rhode Island. Accidents, homicide and suicide combined made up 73 percent of teen deaths aged 15 to 19.

The good news is that accidents and homicides are down dramatically. The bad news is that suicide is up, especially for teen girls aged 15-19. Three times as many boys commit suicide as girls, but from 1999 to 2014 female teen suicides jumped 56 percent, according to CDC data compiled by the Population Reference Bureau.

3. Teen births. Teen births per 1,000 dropped from 40 to 24, falling impressively among all demographic groups. African-American teen births fell nearly in half, from 60 to 35. Hispanic teens saw a similar drop, while whites dropped from 26 to 17. Asian teen births dropped from 14 to eight. The lowest teen birth rates were in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the highest in Arkansas.

Those concerned that low teen birth rates means more abortions can exhale. Teen abortion rates have fallen steadily and by 2010, the most recent year available, had reached the lowest rates since abortion was legalized. In 1990, the teen abortion rate was 40.3 per 1,000 women, and in 2010 it had fallen to 16.3, according to National Center of Health Statistics data.

Pew Research Center reports a number of possible causes for the decline, which was sharpest among minority groups. In addition to better education and contraception, it is notable that teens are reporting lower levels of sexual activity. The percentage of teen girls reporting they had ever had sex fell from 51 in 1988 to 44 percent in 2013.

4. Health insurance. Children without health insurance dropped from 10 to 6 percent. Some of the worst-performing states overall did well on this measure. Surprisingly, these included states some states that performed poorly on most other measures. Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, for example, rejected the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but still got their uninsured percentage below the national average, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data. (Arkansas just expanded Medicaid in April, after this data was collected.)

A 2015 Georgetown University study noted Alabama's progress, which it attributed to the "welcome mat" effect of the Affordable Care Act, as the state aggressively signed up families that were eligible for Medicaid but had never signed up.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma still has 14 percent of children uninsured, followed by Alaska, Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

5. Graduation. Percentage of high school students who failed to graduate on time dropped from 25 to 19, the Casey Foundation reports. The best performers were Nebraska and Wisconsin, with just 7 percent missing the mark, while Nevada chalked up a disturbing 33 percent of off-schedule youth.

Improved graduation rates were a cause for national celebration in 2015, and even bottom-feeder Mississippi celebrated all-time highs this month, The Columbus Dispatch reported, with just 19.2 percent missing scheduled graduation. In the current Casey report, using 2013 data, Mississippi still stood at 32 percent, eclipsed only by Nevada at 33 percent.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, in 2014 Nevada has the worst graduation rate in the country at 63 percent. Non-English speaking students and low-income students fared more poorly in Nevada than elsewhere, with just 58 percent of low-income students graduating in 2012.

... and four areas where things got worse.

1. Poverty. Percent of children in poverty climbed from 18 to 22. The best performers here were Maryland, New Hampshire, Utah and Wyoming, all at 13 percent. The worst was New Mexico at 30 percent. Just 13 percent of white or Asian children live in poverty, compared to 32 percent of Hispanic 38 percent of African-American children.

2. Single parents. Percent of children being raised by a single parent climbed from 32 to 35. Among the states, Utah was the lowest with 19 percent, while Louisiana and Mississippi tied at 47. Seventeen percent of Asian children live in a single-parent home, compared with 25 percent of white, 42 percent of Hispanic and 66 percent of African-American children.

Speer said her team keeps a very close eye on this statistic, which they see as a key poverty driver. "The research is clear that if a child is being raised by a single, unmarried parent, they are more likely to be below the poverty line."

The obvious explanation is that two adults will be better able to juggle kids and provide for them than one, but Speer says we need better data to understand the nuances here.

3. Secure employment. Percent of children whose parents lacked secure employment climbed from 27 to 30. West Virginia, Mississippi and New Mexico performed most poorly here, with Kentucky close behind.

Speer says that even with unemployment rates down, many people still cannot find full-time work and wages have stagnated. There is also, she notes, a clear overlap between employment security and having two parents in the home.

4. Concentrated poverty. The damage of poverty to a child is exacerbated when their neighborhood is also extremely poor. The Casey Foundation report notes that when concentrated poverty, or the percentage of families that are poor in a given neighborhood, crests 20 percent it becomes problematic. At 40 percent, serious negative effects occur, as children are dramatically impacted by their surroundings.

Children living in high-poverty areas climbed from 11 percent to 14 percent from 2008 to 2014, an unfortunate trend reversal, as from 1990 to 2000 children situated amidst concentrated poverty had fallen from 11 percent to 9 percent. States pegged above the 20 percent level include New Mexico, Mississippi, Arizona and Louisiana.

The lowest concentrated poverty figure was Wyoming, at just 1 percent, which stands to reason, because Wyoming doesn't have any population concentrations to speak of.
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