In a recent opinion piece entitled “KIDS COUNT Ranking Counts Money the Most,” Charlie Mitchell questioned the determinants in how the Annie E. Casey Foundation arrives at the state rankings published annually in their KIDS COUNT Data Book. The 2014 book, released in July, marked the 25th year the foundation has published the rankings which are designed to give an overall view of child well-being in each state and the District of Columbia. KIDS COUNT rankings are constructed by indexing 16 indicators across four different domains (economic well-being, education, health, and family and community). Together, they make up the overall ranking for a state. For 2014, Mississippi’s overall rank was 50th, and Massachusetts was 1st. Central to Mr. Mitchell’s argument is that the index itself does not offer a fair assessment of all states, in particular Southern states, due to regional differences on income and living expenses.
Mr. Mitchell asked whether greater context might provide a more complex understanding of some of the socioeconomic factors used to rank the state of Mississippi and suggested that Mississippi might not be last after all. However, it is important to understand that the KIDS COUNT ranking measures much more than the selected indicators he highlighted. I take this as an opportunity to share information about national KIDS COUNT rankings and the work of Mississippi KIDS COUNT.
One of the four indicators that comprise the economic portion of the ranking is the percent of children living in a family that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing. The lower cost of living is reflected with Mississippi being ranked 29th on this indicator. But cost of living is not the only measure which affects the economic well-being of children. The other three KIDS COUNT indicators include child poverty (MS is ranked 50th), children who have no parent with full-time, year-round employment (again 50th), and teens 16 to 19 not in school or working (49th). While we might be average on housing expenses, nearly every other measure shows that Mississippi’s children are at a strong economic disadvantage compared to their peers across the nation.
In looking at education, KIDS COUNT considers four individual indicators that determine Mississippi’s educational outlook. One measure of educational performance is the percent of eligible children not enrolled in preschool. Mississippi is ranked 8th in the nation (50 percent) on this measure. KIDS COUNT uses three additional educational indicators. Mississippi is ranked 49th on 4th grade reading proficiency, 48th on 8th grade math proficiency, and 49th for high school students graduating on time. Regional differences cannot account for these disparities.
[pullquote align=”left”]No single indicator, or even a domain of indicators, can describe overall quality of life. But taken together, these 16 indicators can give us a clearer picture of where we are, and, more importantly, where we need to go.[/pullquote]
KIDS COUNT also examines four indicators in the health domain. If looking only at one indicator, the percentage of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs, Mississippi does not fair too poorly compared to Massachusetts, the top ranking state. Mississippi has 6 percent of teens in this category, while Massachusetts has 7 percent. However, on other health indicators, Mississippi continues to rank very poorly. We have the highest percentage of low-birth weight babies in the nation, and we are above the median for the percentage of children without health insurance. Child and teen deaths per 100,000 is at 38 which ranks Mississippi 47th compared to Massachusetts which ranked number one.
Mississippi ranked 50th across all four indicators in the family and community domain. Twenty-eight percent of Mississippi’s children live in high-poverty areas compared to Massachusetts with 8 percent. Forty-nine percent of Mississippi children live in single-parent households.
No single indicator, or even a domain of indicators, can describe overall quality of life. But taken together, these 16 indicators can give us a clearer picture of where we are, and, more importantly, where we need to go. I agree that we need to take action to bring about more improvement for Mississippi’s children. The first step in bringing about this change is by taking a comprehensive look at child well-being and understanding what the data tell us.
Mississippi KIDS COUNT, located at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center is part of the national KIDS COUNT network of state-based organizations supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Each state’s KIDS COUNT grantee is responsible for providing additional data variables and conducting outreach activities on topics of interest specific to their state. State, county, and school district data can be accessed via the online data center. Annually Mississippi KIDS COUNT produces its own fact book and has spotlighted numerous successful programs across Mississippi including programs from New Albany to Jonestown to Jackson to Pascagoula. Results of a 2013 survey found that Mississippi KIDS COUNT data has been used to obtain $36 million for programs across Mississippi.
In spring 2013, Mississippi KIDS COUNT conducted Mississippi’s first ever state-wide kindergarten teachers’ survey on school readiness. In February, Mississippi KIDS COUNT partnered with Mississippi’s Parents & Kids magazine and IHL’s College Knowledge Project and Gear Up Mississippi to sponsor an appearance by actor, author and humanitarian Hill Harper at the Metro Jackson College Fair. Approximately 3,700 high school students from across the state had the opportunity to hear his motivational remarks. Recently the Annie E. Casey Foundation awarded Mississippi KIDS COUNT a supplemental policy grant to aid Mississippi’s policy, education, and health leaders with early care and education resources.
Additionally, the work of Mississippi KIDS COUNT has attracted funding from the Center for Mississippi Health Policy to facilitate a pilot program with the Mississippi Department of Education to conduct developmental screenings this fall for approximately 2,000 children who are part of the Pre-K Collaborative programs across Mississippi. Other entities partnering in this pilot program include the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Division of Pediatrics and the Center for the Advancement of Youth. Findings from these screenings will be available in early 2015.
Mississippi KIDS COUNT continues to be about providing the most reliable and valid data from nationally recognized sources (i.e., Census, American Community Survey, CDC, etc.) as well as available data at the county, census tract and school district levels. It is also about being a catalyst for improving outcomes for children, whether through policy analysis, spotlighting community level success stories, inspiring youth through summits with nationally recognized motivational speakers, providing information about evidence-based decision or promoting data-driven decisions. Mr. Mitchell expressed that we should all “try to determine what can be done and what should be done about improvement.” With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I believe Mississippi KIDS COUNT is doing just that.
Explore the 2014 Mississippi KIDS COUNT state profile: