December 01, 2013

Chilld Well-being Post Recession

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Where does your state stand in promoting children’s well-being? The latest data from the Casey Foundation ranks New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts as the top three states for promoting children’s overall well-being. At the bottom of the ranking are Nevada, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Northeastern states tended to rank highly, while states in the southeast and southwest—where the poorest states are located—ranked at the low end.

For 24 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has tracked data on children’s well-being nationally and across states and published those results in its Kids Count Data Book. Using 16 well-being indicators across four domains—economic well-being, health, education, and family and community--the Data Book paints a picture of how children are doing each year. 

The 2013 Data Book looks at how children are doing after the economic recession. It compares data from 2011, the most recent available, with 2005 data. Improvements were noted in the education and health domains, while declines were found in the economic well-being and family/community domains. Read on for some trends.


Small improvements were found from 2005 to 2011 in four measures of educational well-being. 

  • The number of children attending preschool grew 2%. 
  • Fourth grade reading proficiency improved by 2%. 
  • Eighth grade math proficiency improved by 6%. 
  • High school graduation rates improved by 5%. 

Despite improvements, large gaps were found between affluent and low-income children in standardized test scores and school readiness. Many children were not entering kindergarten ready to succeed, especially low-income children. Fewer than half of low-income children attended preschool. Of those children who did attend preschool, only a small percentage received high-quality early education that helped them overcome developmental deficits related to poverty and low parent education.

Top 3 states: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont

Bottom 3 states: Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada


Small improvements were found between 2005 to 2011 across four measures of health

  • The number of low birth weight babies declined slightly from 8.2% to 8.1%.
  • The number of children who lacked health insurance fell from 10% to 7%.
  • Child and teen mortality fell from 32% to 26%.
  • Teen substance abuse fell from 8% to 7%. 

Expanded public health coverage for children boosted the number of insured children. In 18 states, the number of children lacking health insurance was 5% or less in 2011. In Massachusetts and Vermont, only 2% of children lacked health insurance in 2011, compared to 16% in Nevada. Having insurance protects families from financial hardship when a child develops a serious or chronic illness. Children with health insurance are also more likely to have a regular health provider, which ensures health needs are addressed as they arise.

Mortality rates were down for all children due to medical advances and improved use of safety measures. 

Obesity was noted as a growing problem among children in 2011, especially low-income and minority children. Early intervention programs targeting childhood obesity was recommended as a preventive approach.

Top 3 states: Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin

Bottom 3 states: Mississippi, New Mexico, Montana

Economic Well-Being

Economic well-being proved the most troubling factor in 2011. Conditions worsened or remained the same across four measures of economic well-being from 2005 to 2011:

  • The child poverty rate in the U.S. rose from 19% to 23%. For very young children under age three, the poverty rate was even higher at 26%. 
  • Children living in homes in which adults lacked secure employment grew from 27% to 32%.
  • Children living in homes with high housing cost burden grew from 37% to 40%.
  • The number of teens out of school and not working remained the same (8%).

Economic factors—well-paying jobs, affordable housing, and ability to invest in children’s futures—are key to help children succeed. Poverty prevents parents from meeting children’s basic needs, including health care, quality child care, and housing.

Many children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty (30% or more of households living below the poverty line). These children face a higher risk of crime, violence, and physical and mental health problems.

Adult unemployment after the recession has played a role. Although the unemployment rate has declined post-recession, it is still high (7.5%). The report noted that adults with low education are most likely to suffer long-term unemployment, which creates many hardships for their children. 

In 2011, one-third of all children in the U.S. lived in families where no parent held a full-time job year-round. North Dakota and New Hampshire have the fewest number of children living in homes with unemployed parents, while Mississippi has the highest.

Another troubling employment-related trend is teens not in school and not working. Referred to as “disconnected youth,” these teens comprised 8% of youth in 2011. Their numbers grew from 1.4 million in 2008 to 1.5 million in 2011. These youth are at greater risk of negative outcomes as they transition to adulthood. American Indian, African American, and Latino youth have higher rates of not being in school and not working than white, Asian, and Pacific Islander youth.

Top 3 states: North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota

Bottom 3 states: Nevada, New Mexico, Mississippi

Family and Community

The family and community domain measured how well children are nurtured and cared for in their families and communities, especially in their early years. Some improvements and some declines were found in four measures of family/community well-being:

  • Children living in families in which the head of household lacked a high school diploma dropped from 16% to 15%.
  • The number of teen births per 1000 dropped from 40 to 34.
  • Children living in single-parent homes rose from 32% to 35%. The percentage for infants and toddlers was 37%.
  • Children living in high poverty areas rose from 9% to 12%.

 Children living in single parent-led household often face more barriers than children in two-parent homes. For example, the impact on children’s economic and emotional well-being is greater in single-parent homes.

Communities with strong cultural and social institutions, good role models, and resources to support quality education and services help children and families thrive. Poverty, single-parenthood, low parent education, and teen parenthood affect the strength of families and communities. 

Top 3 states: New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont

Bottom 3 states: Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi

Improving Child Well-being

Focus on the early years.

Evidence shows children’s early experiences shape their cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development. They thrive with nurturing caregiver relationships and stimulating environments. Poverty and other risks compromise children’s brain development and learning, setting children up for a host of risks as they enter school and beyond: lack of school readiness, lagging reading ability, school failure/dropout, teen pregnancy, unemployment, and poverty.

Use early intervention strategies. 

Early interventions that strengthen the relationships and experiences of very young children can help them overcome risks associated with growing up in poverty and less nurturing environments. Supporting parents and teaching them how to nurture and support their children, providing targeted economic supports, and improving access to high-quality early childhood programs are early interventions that make a difference.

Use two-generation strategies. 

Efforts should focus on helping young children’s parents address the challenges that affect their caregiving. Substance abuse counseling, mental health supports, job assistance, and other interventions can help parents overcome problems so they can focus on being good parents and promoting good outcomes for their children.

Support “smart investments.”

Priority should go to funding interventions with proven track records for promoting child well-being and healthy development. Programs that support new parents and help them fulfill their roles, such as home visiting, should be coordinated with effective early education programs to ensure young children enter school ready to learn and their parents are there to support them. 

Devoting resources to proven interventions for older children, and children at other developmental stages, that help them achieve long-term are also key.

Claire Chiamulera is CLP’s editor.