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Report Takes Measure of Children’s Well-Being, County by County

ACNJ rankings reflect impact of recession on NJ children and families.

Morris is the county where kids fare best, while Atlantic is where kids’ well-being is most at risk.

Those are the top-line findings from the Association for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), which yesterday released its Kids Count County Rankings. The report takes the measure of child well-being across the state based on 16 criteria, from health and safety to family economics and education. Though economic indicators play a leading role in determining the rankings, other factors—from availability of preschool programs to the number of children receiving school breakfasts—can also help counties move up (or down) the scale.

Slicing and dicing the numbers does more than determine leaders and laggards. It also details the individual issues affecting children directly—and how these play out geographically and in the shadow of budget cuts and the lingering recession.

“Comparing counties for information is useful,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of ACNJ, “especially at a time when we’re looking at a state budget that cuts critical programs.” She noted that the information is valuable to citizens and to local and county leaders as they exert pressure on policymakers to fund successful initiatives.

Child Poverty an Ongoing Problem

One issue singled out in the report was the persistence of child poverty in several areas of the state. The problem affects northern and southern counties alike, from Essex, Hudson and Passaic to Atlantic, Camden, Cumberland and Salem.

In 2008, the most recent period for which data is available, 23% of children in Hudson were growing up in poverty -- the highest percentage of all counties and nearly twice the state average of 12%. In Atlantic, the figure was 19%.

Zalkind said the rates are likely to rise even more, as the most current child poverty figures reflect conditions in 2008. And with unemployment increasing across all counties, the true effects of the recession on child poverty are not yet fully known.

The high cost of housing also affects child well-being. In 12 of 21 counties, at least half of all renters spent more than 30% of their income for housing. In Ocean County, three-quarters of renters spent more than the recommended amount—the highest in the state. Atlantic is close behind, its situation compounded by stagnant growth in median income and the highest increase in unemployment statewide.

Gains in Health and Safety

In child health and safety, however, the report noted some marked improvements. Infant mortality rates are generally down, especially in Essex—from eight infants per 1,000 live births in 2004 to six in 2006. The state average is five per 1,000 live births, with Morris County recording the lowest at three per 1,000.

And the number of children living in foster care also dropped. While Hunterdon led the way with a rate of just one in 1,000 out-of-home placements, even last-place finisher Essex has seen a huge improvement, from 14 per 1,000 in 2005 to 10 per 1,000 today. ACNJ says this could reflect the success of welfare reforms aimed at keeping children at home.

And Zalkind stresses the need to keep supporting programs that the report shows improve child well-being, including school breakfast for eligible children. New Jersey already lags in this area, Zalkind noted. Even in the highest-ranking county—Cape May—only 65% percent of eligible children received school breakfast. Proposed cuts in funding for this program could result in even fewer children benefiting from it, she said.

“Thousands of families may lose many of the supports they count on because of proposed cuts to the state budget,” Zalkind said. “It’s our hope this information will be used to improve the well-being of all New Jersey children.”

Dominic Preziosi is the copy chief for NJ Spotlight.

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