The States That Are Failing Their Children

The states adding the largest number of young people tend to produce the worst outcomes for kids.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 14: McDonogh #35 Senior High School graduates stand at their commencement at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on May 14, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors attempted to use the convention center as a shelter of last resort in the days following the storm, yet it lacked power, water, food and medical supplies. McDonogh 35 was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Katrina and was the first high school for African-Americans in the state of Louisiana. It is one of the last remaining traditional public schools in the city. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
National Journal
Aug. 5, 2015, 4 p.m.

Amer­ica’s nurs­er­ies are fail­ing at their job.

The states that are adding the largest num­ber of young people tend to pro­duce the worst out­comes for kids, judged by such meas­ures as high school gradu­ation, ac­cess to health in­sur­ance, and ex­pos­ure to poverty. The states that pro­duce the best out­comes for kids tend to be either stag­nant or de­clin­ing in their youth pop­u­la­tions.

That means the na­tion is in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing for its fu­ture work­force and con­sumers on the states that are achiev­ing the least suc­cess — and of­ten mak­ing the least ef­fort — to equip their kids to suc­ceed. “The fact that we have so many kids liv­ing in parts of the coun­try where the out­comes aren’t as good “¦ is something we are go­ing to pay for later,” says demo­graph­er Bill Frey, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Met­ro­pol­it­an Policy Pro­gram.

These stark con­clu­sions emerge from a com­par­is­on of Frey’s ana­lys­is of the trends in the youth pop­u­la­tion for all 50 states with the latest Kids Count data book from the An­nie E. Ca­sey Found­a­tion. (Full dis­clos­ure: Ca­sey is among the spon­sors for the Next Amer­ica pro­ject at Na­tion­al Journ­al that I su­per­vise.) Ca­sey ranks the con­di­tion of chil­dren in the states across 16 quant­it­at­ive in­dic­at­ors in edu­ca­tion, health, fam­ily, and the eco­nomy. From these in­di­vidu­al as­sess­ments, Ca­sey syn­thes­izes a cu­mu­lat­ive rank of well-be­ing for chil­dren in each state.

Com­par­ing that rank­ing with Frey’s ana­lys­is of changes in the 20-and-young­er pop­u­la­tion for each state from 2000 through 2014 pro­duces stark res­ults that are omin­ous for the na­tion’s fu­ture eco­nom­ic vi­tal­ity and so­cial sta­bil­ity.

The 15 states that Ca­sey ranked as pro­du­cing the best out­comes for kids are mostly clustered in New Eng­land (New Hamp­shire, Mas­sachu­setts, Maine, Ver­mont, Con­necti­c­ut), the Mid­w­est (Min­nesota, Iowa, Wis­con­sin) and the mid-At­lantic (New Jer­sey, Mary­land, Vir­gin­ia). But in nine of the 15 highest-ranked states, the num­ber of young people de­clined from 2000 through 2014, Frey found. Only in Utah and Vir­gin­ia on that list did the num­ber of young people in­crease by at least 5 per­cent.

The 15 states that Ca­sey ranked as pro­du­cing the weak­est out­comes for kids are clustered in the Sun Belt (ran­ging west from South Car­o­lina, Geor­gia, and Flor­ida to Texas, Nevada, and Cali­for­nia) and Ap­palachia (West Vir­gin­ia, Ten­ness­ee, Ken­tucky). In nine of the 15 low­est-ranked states, the num­ber of young people in­creased from 2000 through 2014. The in­crease reached double di­gits in six of them.

In all, nearly 37 mil­lion young people, rep­res­ent­ing fully 45 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans un­der 20, now live in the 15 states at the bot­tom of the Ca­sey list. Just 15 mil­lion young people, rep­res­ent­ing only 19 per­cent of the un­der-20 pop­u­la­tion, live in the 15 states atop the list. Mov­ing for­ward, this gap may only widen: Of the 15 states that ex­per­i­enced the largest per­cent­age in­crease in their youth pop­u­la­tion from 2000 to 2014, nine rank in Ca­sey’s bot­tom 15 and just one in its top 15.

An im­pos­ing chasm sep­ar­ates kids’ ex­per­i­ences across these states. The share of chil­dren in poverty is lower than the na­tion­al av­er­age (of 22 per­cent in 2013) on all 15 states top­ping the list. The share of chil­dren in poverty ex­ceeds the na­tion­al av­er­age in all 15 states at the bot­tom, in­clud­ing Texas (25 per­cent), Ari­zona (26 per­cent), and Geor­gia (27 per­cent). Res­ults for high school gradu­ation rates and ac­cess to health in­sur­ance fol­low sim­il­ar pat­terns.

One oth­er chasm sep­ar­ates the highest and low­est-ranked states: di­versity. Minor­it­ies rep­res­ent a ma­jor­ity of kids un­der 20 in just two of the 15 highest-ranked states. Minor­it­ies already rep­res­ent a ma­jor­ity of the un­der-20 pop­u­la­tion in eight of the 15 low­est ranked states (in­clud­ing Geor­gia, Flor­ida, Texas, and Cali­for­nia), and at least two-fifths in four oth­ers.

Today, the Sun Belt states most acutely face the chal­lenge of equip­ping more kids of col­or to reach the middle class. But that is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a na­tion­al ne­ces­sity. Frey’s data show that the ab­so­lute num­ber of white kids un­der 20 has de­clined in 46 of the 50 states since 2000. Against that back­drop, a fail­ure to el­ev­ate the minor­ity kids com­pris­ing a grow­ing share of the work­force al­most every­where will hurt not only their states, but also our na­tion­al eco­nom­ic com­pet­it­ive­ness.

Largely for that reas­on, Rolf Pend­all, dir­ect­or of com­munity policy at the non­par­tis­an Urb­an In­sti­tute, says the U.S. can no longer ac­cept the his­tor­ic di­vi­sion that ef­fect­ively al­loc­ated primary fund­ing re­spons­ib­il­ity for pro­grams af­fect­ing seni­ors to Wash­ing­ton and for pro­grams af­fect­ing kids to the states. “In­creas­ingly it’s a lim­ited num­ber of states, and a lim­ited num­ber of metro areas, that are the nurs­er­ies of the fu­ture work­force,” Pend­all says. “That means it’s in the na­tion­al in­terest to provide for max­im­iz­ing the life chances of kids [in those] places. That’s “¦ not char­ity. It’s in­vest­ment.”

That re­cog­ni­tion could trans­late in­to provid­ing a na­tion­al baseline of ser­vices, like ac­cess to preschool and health in­sur­ance for all kids, and a liv­able wage for par­ents. But it also means all Amer­ic­ans will lose if the states most re­spons­ible for nur­tur­ing the next gen­er­a­tion don’t com­mit to the chal­lenge more ur­gently than they are today.

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