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Zirpoli: Report highlights need to invest in children's health, education

Each year the Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes their Kids Count Data Book: State Trends in Child Well-Being. The report reviews the variables related to children's health and overall well-being, nationally and by state, and can be viewed or downloaded at www.aecf.org/2016db.

On 16 "key indicators of child well-being," the Casey Foundation found that between 2008 and 2014, the following indicators improved for our nation's children: The number of children living in households with a high housing cost burden (39 percent to 35 percent), teens not in school and not working (8 percent to 7 percent), fourth graders not proficient in reading (68 percent to 65 percent), eighth graders not proficient in math (69 percent to 68 percent), high school students not graduating on time (25 percent to 18 percent), low-birthweight babies (8.2 percent to 8.0 percent), child and teen deaths per 10,000 (29 to 24), teens who abuse alcohol or drugs (8 percent to 5 percent), children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma (16 percent to 14 percent), teen births per 1,000 (40 to 24), and the percentage of children without health insurance (10 percent to 6 percent).

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Of the above indicators moving in the right direction, perhaps the two most significant are the number of children without health insurance and the rate of teen births. Both decreased 40 percent between 2008 and 2014.

On the issue of health insurance, the report found that the percentage of children without health insurance is highest in Texas and Alaska (11 percent), while Massachusetts and Vermont had the lowest rate of uninsured children (2 percent). Maryland came in at 3 percent on this variable.

The following indicators worsened for our nation's children between 2008 and 2014: The proportion of children living in poverty (18 percent to 22 percent), children whose parents lack secure employment (27 percent to 30 percent), young children not in school (52 percent to 53 percent), children in single-parent families (32 percent to 35 percent), and children living in high-poverty areas (11 percent to 14 percent).

Of these indicators, the finding that half of our preschoolers are not in a preschool program is most disturbing. If you want to talk about investing in our nation's future, investing in preschool programs for all of our nation's children would be a good start and even more productive, I believe, than today's discussion about free community college.

According to the report, the top 10 states for children to live when considering the indicators of economic well-being, education, health, and family and community variables are (in order): Minnesota, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Utah. The bottom 10 states for children to live when considering these four indicators (from 41st to 50th) are: South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Alabama, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi.

The top three states for children's health care were identified as Minnesota, Connecticut, and Iowa. The bottom three were Wyoming, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Maryland ranked 22nd best in the nation on this indicator. Interestingly, the top three states on this variable have all adopted the state Medicaid expansion option under the Affordable Care Act which provides healthcare insurance to poor families. The states with the three worst records for children's health care have decided not to adopt this expansion and their children seem to be paying the price.

Parents' educational achievement continues to be an important variable for families and their children. The report cited data from the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau that found the "median family income by family head's educational attainment" as follows: $29,000 for parents with no high school diploma, $47,500 for those with a high school diploma or GED, $64,500 for those with an associate degree, $100,800 for those with a bachelor's degree, and $126,100 for those with a graduate degree.

The report documents the fact that education is still a good investment for our nation's families and for our children. Again, we should start with preschool programs for all of our nation's children. Let's get them off to a good start so that more of them will be ready for college.

The data in this report demonstrates the positive outcomes of investing in the health, education and general well-being of our nation's children. And that which is beneficial for our children is beneficial to our well-being as a nation.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is the program coordinator for the human services management graduate program at McDaniel College. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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