After a decade as No. 1, New Hampshire falls to No. 4 in annual Kids Count survey

Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2014
For at least a decade, New Hampshire enjoyed a comfortable spot as the top state in the nation in an annual survey of kids’ well-being. This year, it fell to No. 4 – a wake-up call, some say, on the urgency of addressing child poverty and related issues in the Granite State.

While the most recent edition of the Kids Count index, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, suggests that New Hampshire has improved in some areas – the number of children attending preschool and the number of children with health insurance, for example – it also suggests that children are increasingly held back by economic instability.

The report, which is compiled annually, measures states’ progress on kids’ well-being in four areas: economic well-being, family and community, education, and health. The statistics used in the report are compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other federal sources. This year’s full rankings can be viewed online at kidscount.org.

The state performed worst in categories related to economic well-being, according to the report, ranking 12th nationally. The number of children living in poverty jumped from about 33,000, or 12 percent, in 2011 to 42,000, or 16 percent, in 2012. More children are also living with parents who do not have secure employment – 72,000 in 2012, compared with 65,000 in 2011. According to the report, the number of children “living in households with a high housing cost burden” decreased slightly from 2011 to 2012, and the number of “teens not in school and not working” remained stagnant between those years, but both figures have worsened overall since 2005.

On education issues, the state fared generally well but still has room for improvement and maintained its No. 4 standing from last year. While the number of children not attending preschool has decreased overall from a 2005-07 assessment, almost half – 48 percent – of kids still aren’t attending, according to 2010-12 figures. Children’s performance on fourth-grade reading assessments and eighth-grade math assessments also improved slightly, as did the percentage of students who graduated high school on time.

On health issues, the state’s performance was also mixed – it ranked 13th overall, up from 16th in last year’s report. The number of babies born at a low birth weight increased slightly from 881 in 2010 to 898 in 2011, and the number of kids without health insurance rose from 10,000 in 2011 to 11,000 in 2012. Fewer teens are also abusing alcohol and drugs, down by about 2,000 between 2010-11 and 2011-12. Death figures among children and teens were not updated in this edition of the report.

Family and community indicators were similarly mixed for New Hampshire, which held the top spot nationally in this category. More children are living in single-parent families – 80,000 in 2012, compared with 78,000 in 2011 – and teen births also decreased from 722 in 2010 to 629 in 2012, according to the report. The state has continued to do better than the national average when it comes to children living in households without a high school diploma: 6 percent in 2012, compared with 15 percent nationally, according to the report. Additionally, 3,000 children, or 1 percent, live in high-poverty areas, according to the report.

While New Hampshire fell to fourth place in the overall index, some neighboring states moved ahead: Massachusetts took the No. 1 spot, followed by Vermont at No. 2. Iowa is ranked third and Minnesota is fifth.

Calls for action

Gov. Maggie Hassan, in a statement on this year’s Kids Count figures, called attention to several steps the state has taken to help kids since she took office: lowering the unemployment rate, expanding health care access, freezing in-state tuition at state universities and bringing down community college tuition starting in the fall. While the state “continues to outperform most of the country in overall child well-being,” Hassan said the rankings show that New Hampshire has more work to do.

“In order to build a brighter future for all of our young people, we must continue to build on our bipartisan progress and restore and increase our minimum wage, expand opportunity for middle-class families, help innovative businesses create jobs and keep our economy moving in the right direction,” she said.

Others – New Hampshire Kids Count Executive Director Ellen Fineberg; New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute Executive Director Jeff McLynch and Mil Duncan, a fellow at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy – also called attention to the state’s minimum wage, which is lower than others, as a possible contributor to some of the issues in the report. McLynch is on the steering committee for the Kids Count’s New Hampshire Child Advocacy Network, and both he and Duncan were selected by NH Kids Count to provide comments in an initial summary of this year’s rankings.

In separate interviews, McLynch and Duncan said the state should also consider expanding its federal earned income tax credit and should provide more support for education.

Fineberg said home visiting programs to help families with young children and efforts to address school nutrition or to provide breakfast at school are also steps that could be taken to improve kids’ well-being. She said the state’s Kids Count will be working with other organizations across the state to address some of the issues highlighted in the report in the year ahead.

Duncan said full-day kindergarten and access to preschool programs need to be expanded, citing the education figures in the report, and emphasized that financial security can play a significant role in a child’s overall well-being.

Both McLynch and Duncan said many residents who are living more comfortably might not realize the extent to which child poverty affects families in New Hampshire.

“If we as a state, pride ourselves on New Hampshire being a great place to live and to raise a family, that is, in large measure, true – but there are many families throughout the state where that is not the case,” McLynch said.

Duncan said people might be blind to these issues because they tend to “self-segregate” with people who have similar jobs or income levels.

“If New Hampshire residents who are prospering realized how many families and kids were struggling, they’d have a different perspective on how much we need to do,” Duncan said. “They’d be more likely to see that we need to be investing in those families and in those kids.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)