Missouri ranks in middle of the country on child well-being

   

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The National KIDS COUNT Data Center released its state rankings of child well-being yesterday, and Missouri placed right in the middle of the country at 26th.

For Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst, the findings are unacceptable.

“It was really discouraging to me that Missouri fell in the middle of the pack,” van Schenkhof said. “We were not in the top ten of any indicators.”

The study compared results from 2008 to numbers in 2013. Missouri improved from last year when it had fallen all the way to 29th, but Laurie Hines, the Missouri KIDS COUNT coordinator, noted that a year difference should not be taken too seriously.

“Most researchers and data analytic would say that for something as serious and important as ranking child well-being looking at a one-year increment of time is really not sufficient,” Hines said.

Missouri also ranked 26th in 2012.

The study measured child well-being along four categories: economic well-being, education, health and family and community.

Missouri experienced a rise in child poverty since 2008 from 19 percent to 22 while also having more children in single parent housing and more kids living in high poverty areas.

Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and the No. 1 state of Minnesota make up the top five states in terms of child well-being. Hines believes concerted efforts in Minnesota to address certain problems have helped them rise in the rankings.

“They’ve taken a real focus on hunger and health care and that would be two areas where we could stand some improvement in child well-being.”

Hines added Missouri could see its own rise “if we just focused on those critical areas” such as tackling child poverty and providing more early childhood education.

Van Schenkhof sees it as a matter of funding. She said that more money wasn’t the solution, but that more well-spent money probably would get Missouri a better measurement of child well-being.

“Quite truthfully, I believe that when you make smart investments, you see payments in those investments,” she said. “By making children a public policy priority in Missouri, then we can make a difference in those things. It clearly shows we have not done enough. These are states that are probably investing more in early childhood education and child welfare system, more money in medical and mental health treatment.”

But not only blue states willing to spend more liberally were at the top of the rankings. Van Schenkhof noted that Utah consistently ranked at the top of the pack (No. 9 this year), because of their incredibly intense focus on families as a result of the Mormon presence within the state.

Dr. Wayne Mayfield, a researcher at the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis at the University of Missouri, says poverty is the primary indicator of reasons Missouri’s ranking has not improved past other states.

“The [indicators] in Missouri we worsened on overtime were economic ones,” he said. “We noticed families themselves are having issues with poverty, and we have more of them now that can act as a drag on educational achievement. Education may not be the most important thing to a family that’s facing an economic crisis.”

Both Mayfield and Hines cited the Great Recession as the reason indicators in all categories, not just economic, have gotten worse in Missouri and in the United States. Mayfield noted he believed things were getting better.

“The recovery is taking place in this state, but we’ve lagged behind others,” he said.

Using information from Governing Data, there appears to be a correlation between expenditure per pupil and higher rankings in the education category.

Yet Mayfield noted that states with higher immigrant populations also acted as a drag on their averages, and potentially their scores because immigrants tend to be less financially sound and less likely to speak English. California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, states with large immigrant populations all placed in the bottom quarter of all states.

However, the report was far from doom and gloom. Missouri improved in 10 of the 16 indicators, showing improvement across the board in the education category by increasing reading proficiency in fourth grade and math proficiency in eighth grade. More kids graduate from high school on time, more children are attending preschool, fewer children and teens are dying and teens are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

But what most pleased Hines was the reduction in teen birth rates falling dramatically in the past five years by about 40 percent across the country and in Missouri. Missouri still has a higher than average rate of teen pregnancies, but Hines still finds it encouraging.

“There are some things to celebrate here and that’s one,” she said. “Every state is succeeding at that one, and part of it is the birth rate is going down overall.”

Still, there’s a myriad of reasons that Missouri is not at the top of the pack where van Schenkhof wants Missouri.

“This is a challenge to the state of Missouri.,” she said. “I love a good challenge.”