National KIDS COUNT Index Tells a Positive, Yet Cautionary Tale

In light of recent press around Maine’s Hunger Initiative, pioneered by Preble Street, it is timely to take a look at child well-being indicators as researched by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In their 23rd KIDS COUNT Data Book, the foundation painted a more comprehensive and detailed portrait of states’ rankings. Maine ranked 13th out of the 50 states in a composite index across four domains: health, education, economic well-being, and family and community. Our state scored the highest in health, ranking third, and the lowest on education, with a rank of 23rd. We came in 18th for economic well-being and 7th for family and community.

Decreases in the number of uninsured children partially account for Maine’s high health care ranking. In 2008, 20,000 (7%) Maine children under 18 years old were uninsured. In 2010, the number of uninsured children in Maine decreased to 11,000 or 4%.  Therefore, an estimated 9,000 more youth had health insurance in 2010 than in 2008 resulting in better prospects for a longer and healthier life.

The state also has a solid ranking for family and community, in part due to lower rates of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods—3% of children in Maine compared to the national average of 11%—and a lower rate of teen births, 24% compared to 39% nationally.

Maine also ranks in the top quartile for child economic well-being because of a lower rate of children living in households with high housing cost burden: 33% in Maine compared to 41% nationally. Additionally, 22% of children in the US live in poverty, while only 18% of Maine children do.

Of concern, Maine has slipped in rankings for education, most sharply in 4th grade reading proficiency levels: 12th in 2005 versus 31st in 2011. Maine’s proficiency rate for 4th graders mirrors the national average of 32% , which means only a third of 4th grade students are able to read at their grade level. While not impossible, it is difficult for a child reading below proficiency to overcome this challenge since crucial brain development occurs in the earliest years, from birth to kindergarten.

Overall, Maine’s child well-being rankings are relatively good, but our current political climate threatens progress. Recent state budget cuts slashed Head Start, home visiting and other forms of childcare—the consequences of which are detrimental to a secure future for our younger generations. The $2 million decrease in funding for childcare subsidies alone will affect 1,200 children most in need due to lack of affordable quality childcare programs.

The four domains the KIDS COUNT data book used aren’t mutually exclusive; health is important to education as education is important to future economic well-being as economic well-being is important to community. Reform efforts, such as improving early childhood education, expanding the summer meals program, and refusing to scale back safety net programs, acknowledge the importance of preparing Maine’s children for a brighter future.

Yet, some policymakers continue to attack these programs that are proven to be beneficial to kids. How can Maine improve on child well-being if we aren’t prioritizing children? How can we be number one if we don’t strive for it?

Alexandra Alvarez is a Bowdoin Fellow working this summer at MECEP.