LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas ranks 40th among the states in the overall well-being of its children, though nearly 30 percent of children in the state live in poverty, according to a national child advocacy group’s latest report.
The annual Kids Count Data Book, released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore, moves Arkansas up two spots from its overall ranking of 42nd in last year’s report.
The 56-page report ranks states based on their performance in 16 indicators across four domains: Economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.
New Hampshire topped the list, followed by Vermont and Massachusetts, while New Mexico was at the bottom of the list, with Mississippi 49th and Nevada 48th. It’s the first time in the 24-year history of the annual Kids Count Data Book that Mississippi is not ranked at the bottom, according to the report.
Gov. Mike Beebe said Arkansas’ move up in the Kids Count rankings is a direct result of where the state invests its resources.
"We’ve emphasized spending in areas that can have the most direct impact for children, education and health care, and we’ve seen improvements as a result," Beebe said. "As our stable state economy continues to strengthen, we will see comparable benefits elsewhere as more families climb out of poverty."
The report is used by lawmakers and child welfare advocates across the country to measure the success of their efforts to improve the lives of children and to promote additional improvements.
"I think our overall improvement was really driven by improvements in the health area, and I think it again shows that some of the investments we have made in the last 10 years in terms of the Arkansas Better Chance Program and Medicaid Arkids First have really paid off," said Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
In 2007, Gov. Mike Beebe successfully pushed for a $40 million increase in funding for the Arkansas Better Chance early childhood education program, which is open to children whose family income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The increase brought funding for the program to $111 million, an amount that Beebe said would ensure access for all eligible children.
ARKids First is a medical insurance initiative created for families who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford private insurance.
The number of children without health insurance in Arkansas has dropped from 9 percent in 2008 to 6 percent in 2011, according to the Kids Count report. Nationally, 7 percent of children did not have insurance, according to the report.
Among the four individual categories in the report, Arkansas ranked in the bottom 10 nationally in just one — family and community at 45th.
The state ranked 39th in economic well-being, 36th in education and 30th in health.
Huddleston said the number of children struggling economically in Arkansas because of the recent recession is troubling.
The report found that the number of children in poverty rose to 28 percent in 2011, the last year of data available, from 25 percent in 2005. Children whose parents lack secure employment also rose to 36 percent, from 32 percent in 2008, and children living in households with a high housing cost burden rose to 32 percent, up from 29 percent in 2005.
"Anytime you have 28 percent of your kids living in poverty that has huge implications because I think the research is pretty clear that the longer a child spends in poverty the more likely they are to be at risk with all the bad outcomes that we associate with poverty across education, emotion and social development … make it more likely the child is going to be at risk." he said. "Even beyond that, I think, of course, it even impacts the future of the state’s work force as well."
"I think it’s pretty clear that we need to continue to maintain the investments that we have made in kids over the years," Huddleston said.
Nationally, most states saw improvements in education and health and declines economic well-being and family and community.
"First, we see lingering effects of the recession and continued high unemployment," Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick T. McCarthy wrote in the report. "Second, disparities among children by income and family structure continue to grow. Third, our nation’s youngest children are disproportionally affected by these negative trends."
Arkansas performed better than the national average in a number of areas, including children living in households with a high housing cost burden, with 32 percent, while the national average was 40 percent.
Arkansas also performed better than the national average in children not attending preschool, 52 percent to 54 percent nationally; children without health insurance, 6 percent compared to 7 percent nationally; teens who abuse alcohol or drugs, 6 percent compared to 7 percent; and children in families where the household lacks a high school diploma, 14 percent to 15 percent nationally.
Arkansas showed improvement over previous years in nine areas measured in the report, including teens not in school and not working; children not attending preschool; eighth graders not proficient in math; low-birth weight babies; children without insurance; child and teen deaths per 100,000; teens who abuse alcohol or drugs; children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma; and teen births per 1,000.
The state dropped in six categories, including children in poverty; children whose parents lack secure employment; children living in households with a high housing cost burden; high school students not graduating on time; children in single-parent families; and children living in high-poverty areas.
Arkansas rates remained unchanged in fourth graders not proficient in math.