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The Five Worst States for Kids

If you're a kid in a tough state, your parents are less likely to read to you.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private charitable organization, dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States. If you’re an NPR listener, you’ve heard the name. The Foundation just released its annual KIDS COUNT Data book, in which it compiles markers for child-well-being in all fifty states. This is the 2008 data, and overall, things are looking bleak for the youngest citizens. The number of children living in poverty rose to 18% in 2008, before the worst effects of the current recession even hit. The Foundation says experts expect that rate to climb above 20% in the next few years.

Using strong data markers like the child poverty rate, the percentages of infant, child and teen mortality and the percent of children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment (and one questionable data set: the number of children living in single-parent families, arguably not a significant indication of a lack of well-being), the Foundation tagged the worst, and the best, places in the U.S. to be a kid in 2008.

Sadly, history suggests that we don’t care much about this. We’re vastly more interested in the welfare of Bethenny Frankel’s baby than we are in the 1 in five kids in the U.S. dealing daily with poverty. We might skim the story (and we just might not) but we won’t take any action, other than to shake our heads and get on with our days.

What can you do, anyway, if your state’s on this list?

Here they are, in descending order from least worst to most worst, if you will:

  1. New Mexico
  2. Alabama (do note that correlation with the Worst Cities for Working Moms)
  3. Arkansas
  4. Louisiana
  5. Mississippi, the WORST state in the union in which to be a kid.

Those states have the highest percentages of low-birthweight babies (hello, Mississippi), of teens aged 16-19 not in school and not graduated (oh, drop-outs of Louisiana and New Mexico, tied with Alaska and Nevada). They have the most children living in poverty (Mississippi, you again.) They do poorly on rankings that weren’t even considered for the overall indicators, like per pupil educational expenditure (Utah’s shame is greatest there, but Arizona isn’t high on the list) and children living in food-insecure households (Arkansas again, tied with Arizona at the bottom of the list). They rank among the states with the most children living without health insurance (Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Mississipi).

So, what can you actually do? The easiest thing is to use your mid term election votes where they count. Everyone’s more interested in the national races, but it’s the local races that often have the most affect on markers like these. Which people running for state office support CHIP (the children’s medicaid program)? Would any support extending it to the children of non-U.S. citizens? (Clarification: I put that in a far too PC way. Would any support extending it to kids who aren’t citizens or legal residents? I know that’s a hot button issue. But toddlers hauled over the border with their parents don’t have much say in the matter, and while I understand the difficult incentives involved, those kids deserve coverage.) How about perinatal care? Some of these are tough problems with no obvious solutions. Which candidates have even thought about drop-out rates and food insecurity?

You could volunteer in a food pantry and take your kids along. You could work with organizations that glean fresh but unsalable fruits and vegetables from grocery stores and farms. You could volunteer in a school, or take up, as your kids get older, a career in politics or teaching or social services. In all honesty, I don’t do any of these things on a regular basis. But when I read these statistics, I always want to think about more than just how awful it is that we’re not supporting all of our nation’s children the way I support mine. I want to think about what I can do now, and what I can do someday, to help.

Last but not least, here’s a number  you don’t see very often: states with the highest percentages of parents read to or with their preschool-aged children less than three days a week: Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Nevada and California. Now, here’s one you can do at least a little something about. If you donate to a food pantry or shelter, why not stack up a few picture books and take them along? Young parents are more likely to read if there are books in the house that appeal to kids. Wordless books or naming books work well for immigrant families. For more information on encouraging young parents to read with their kids, visit ReadtoMeFoundation.org or ReadtoMeProgram.org.

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