October 1st, 2012

N.H. takes top spot in child well being survey

New England is a good place to be a kid these days…or at least the best in the nation, although that is not exactly the same thing.

In the 2012 “Kids Count Data Book,” released in July, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private, national philanthropy, ranked the states according to their success in areas of economic well-being, education, health and family and community.

The top three spots were taken by New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. Connecticut was seventh, Maine 13th and Rhode Island 25th.

New Hampshire showed progress in eight of 16 indicators, notably in education and health.

“There are lots of things that we do right in New Hampshire,” says Ellen Fineberg, executive director of the The Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire, the state’s KIDS COUNT grantee partner. “You don’t get to be number one without that.”

Still, as Fineberg points out, this ranking does not mean that everything is perfect in New Hampshire or in any of the top states.

“This is a relative measure of our well being,” she adds. “It’s not the same as getting an A+ and everything is right. Just that compared to everyone else, we are doing the best. It’s like being graded on a curve.”

The relative size of New England states does give them an edge, she adds. Making improvements for New Hampshire’s 300,000 children is far easier than doing something similar for 41st-ranked California’s nine million.

Massachusetts earned top grades for education, and, not surprisingly, for the percentage of children with health coverage. But, again, these rankings are only a comparison to the rest of the country.

“While we lead the nation in fourth graders proficient in reading,” says Noah Berger, president of MassBudget, the Kids Count partner in the Commonwealth, “we lead with only 50 percent proficiency in fourth grade reading which means that half our fourth graders are not proficient.”

Vermont, which ranked first in overall health and third in education, saw similar comparison issues.

“We are very excited about the rate of children with health insurance, which is at 98 percent,” says Melissa Christie, a research associate for Kids Count partner Voices for Vermont’s Children, “but the poverty rate is high, especially for being rated third overall for childhood well being. It can be misleading.”

The poverty rate in Vermont is at 17 percent, compared to 22 percent nationally. The child poverty rates rose in 43 states, ranging from New Hampshire’s 10 percent to Mississippi’s 33 percent. Plus, when figures are broken down by race, a larger discrepancy becomes apparent. Across the country, 49 percent of Native American and black children had parents without secure employment (compared to 25 percent of Caucasian children). And, while 58 percent of white 4th graders had not reached reading proficiency in 2011, more than 80 percent of Latino, African American and Native American children had not.

A main concern with any of this data, even when it seems positive, is whether it will hold for the future. For instance, New Hampshire has been in first place for nine out of the last 10 years. But the political atmosphere has shifted towards a more fiscally conservative one and Fineberg fears that budget changes voted in during the most recent legislative session will negatively affect outcomes for the state’s children.

“There are a lot of changes coming down the pike,” she says. “We haven’t seen the results yet, but we are apprehensive.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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