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Michigan and North Carolina In a Virtual Tie for Child Well-Being – And That’s Not Good

Jul 5, 2023 | Children, Future, Housing, Michigan, North Carolina, Well-being | 0 comments

No one likes to lose, but tying for first place is not a bad thing. It means there are two competitors who gave it their all – co-champions we can cheer for. But what if it’s a virtual tie in which one competitor is 32nd out of 50 and the other is 33rd? All you can say is, “Try harder next time.”

Those are the positions where Michigan and North Carolina found themselves in the latest Kids Count Data Book just published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For 34 years, this foundation has published Kids Count studies annually, rating the states on how their next generations are faring, based on objective data.

Their findings are published nationally and nonprofit partners engage state-level policymakers on how states can set up — or reform — programs that will improve the outcomes for their next generation. Their Michigan partner is the Michigan League for Public Policy, and North Carolina’s is NC Child.

 How our children are faring might be the best predictor of what the future holds for our states in 2040. This week I am benchmarking the Kids Count numbers to see how Michigan and North Carolina achieved such disreputable results.

How Michigan and North Carolina fall short

The AEC Foundation focuses on four broad domains of child well-being: economic, education, health, and family and community. In each domain they picked four indicators that measure results in different ways and for different age groups. I have not been able to find a statement about how they combine them to create the state rankings, but they have good research-based reasons why the indicators make a difference. Kids Count is the most comprehensive state rating of child well-being I can find.

Below are the ratings for each item. For reference I added the national average and the average of the state with the highest rating for each domain. The best rated states for each domain were Nebraska for Economic Well-Being, Massachusetts for Education and also for Health, and Utah for Family and Community. I added some commentary about my impressions below the ratings.

Economic well-being

MeasureUSMINCBest
Children in poverty17%18%18%13%
Children whose parents lack secure employment29%32%28%19%
Children living in households with a high housing cost burden30%25%25%22%
Teens not in school and not working7%7%7%4%

Michigan and North Carolina are not much different on measures of economic well-being. What caught my eye in this domain was Nebraska’s advantage in secure employment for parents. The AEC Foundation defines secure employment as at least one parent having a regular full-time job. Nebraska does better on this than either Michigan or North Carolina and it seems reasonable that has a positive effect of keeping their kids out of poverty and in school as well.

I draw the conclusion that state’s economic growth is not enough for children’s well-being. Michigan and North Carolina should both study Nebraska and focus on measures that help each family have at least one parent in full-time employment.

Education

MeasureUSMINCBest
Young children (ages 3 and 4) not in school54%55%58%44%
Fourth-graders not proficient in reading68%72%68%57%
Eighth-graders not proficient in math74%75%75%65%
High school students not graduating on time14%18%12%11%

As I discussed in an earlier post, the leading state, Massachusetts, invests in its future by spending twice as much per pupil on K-12 education as North Carolina and pays its teachers $35,000 more per year on average. Is it any surprise they do better?

Still, I am struck by how little difference there is between the best state and the U.S. average. With all its investment in education, Massachusetts has not cut its rate on these measures to half of the U.S. average. Judging by these numbers, money isn’t everything. No state has fully cracked the code of creating significantly higher academic achievement.

Health

MeasureUSMINCBest
Low birth-weight babies8.5%9.2%9.4%7.5%
Children without health insurance5%3%5%1%
Child and teen deaths per 100,00030283416
Children and teens (ages 10 to 17) who are overweight or obese33%34%34%28%

I believe Massachusetts leads in health because It has taken steps to open its healthcare system to all its residents. According to the Massachusetts State Health Assessment, this has resulted in these positive measures:

  • Massachusetts has the fewest uninsured residents in the nation at only 4%.
  • Only 7.5% of Massachusetts adults say they do not have a “usual place” of medical care compared to a national rate of 17.3%.
  • Additionally, Massachusetts ranks first in the number of primary care physicians per 100,000 residents at 115.

Why shouldn’t Michigan and North Carolina study and adapt the Massachusetts system to their needs?

Family and Community

MeasureUSMINCBest
Children in single-parent families34%34%36%18%
Children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma11%8%11%6%
Children living in high-poverty areas8%11%7%1%
Teen births per 1,00014121610

It’s no surprise that Utah ranked first in family issues. Family and marriage are central to the message of its dominant religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). The World Population Review estimated  the percentage of Utah’s population identifying as Mormon in 2023 at 62%. The impact of that on the Kids Count measures for family and community measures compared to the U.S. averages are enormous.

This raises the question, do you have to be a Mormon to adopt these family centered values? How can non-Mormon states replicate Utah’s advantage?

There are lessons to be learned here from both conservative-leaning states like Nebraska and Utah as well as from a liberal-leaning state like Massachusetts. Let’s hope that our policymakers in Michigan and North Carolina study and adapt successful approaches from other states to their own circumstances. Striving to do a better job for our kids’ well-being – on measures supported by research like these – is the best thing we can do for their future and ours.

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