Money Still Makes Biggest Difference to Kids’ Wellbeing in NJ
But even wealthiest counties can improve in some ways while the poorest do surprisingly well in some aspects of education, health, and safety
Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s annual Kids Count report on the state’s counties has a different look, but the same basic message: wealth makes a difference when it comes to the education, health, and safety of children.
The organization released today its 2017 profiles and rankings based on a dozen measures of child wellbeing. Rather than give each county an overall rank, ACNJ rated the counties in four areas: economics, health, safety, and education.
There is no top-ranked county this year — last year, Morris took that spot. But the three counties with the best ratings in all those areas were also the counties with the highest median incomes for families with children: Morris, Somerset, and Hunterdon. Meanwhile, Cumberland, Essex, and Camden counties had the three lowest ratings, and all have median incomes below the state average, with Cumberland’s being the lowest at about $52,600. Cumberland had been ranked last in the recent past.
|County||2015 Median Household Income of Families with Children||Percentage of Babies Born with Low Birthweight||Percent Change in Admissions to Juvenile County Detention 2014-15||Change in State-funded Preschool Enrollment 2011-12 to 2015-16|
NA means not available
Advocates for Children of New Jersey
Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of the organization, said the report is about more than just naming the best and worst.
“By using key indicators to rank the four categories, this year’s county rankings provide a richer, more dynamic snapshot of how well children are faring in each county,” she said. “In every part of the state, there are areas of progress and areas of opportunity where community members and advocates can make a positive impact.”
Opportunities to improve
For instance, Somerset County ranked tops in education and second in child and family economics, safety, and wellbeing, but placed 14th in child health, with a comparatively low rate of lead testing for kids under six as a contributing factor.
Among the trends that contributed to the rankings were: In the area of child and family economics, Morris, Somerset, and Bergen had the lowest child-poverty rates — of 9 percent or less — and unemployment rates lower than the state’s 5 percent average. But Cumberland and Passaic had at least a quarter of their children living in poverty, tied for last place on that measure. The state as a whole also remained an expensive place to live, with the greatest burden in Atlantic County, where more than six in 10 households spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
In the area of child health, both infant deaths and babies born with a low-birth weight dropped overall, but so did the percentage of women receiving early prenatal care. The number of uninsured children dropped, as did the percentage of young children tested for lead who had elevated levels in their blood. Hunterdon, Sussex, and Ocean receive the highest rankings for child health, while Gloucester ranked last.
In education, with just 5 percent of students chronically absent and a high school graduation rate at or above 94 percent, Somerset, Morris, and Hunterdon ranked in the top three for education, with Cumberland, Essex and Mercer, landing at the bottom. In both Cumberland and Essex, 15 percent of students were chronically absent, missing at least 10 percent of school days.
In the area of safety and wellbeing, Ocean and Somerset fared best. They had the smallest number of children with substantiated or established cases of child abuse or neglect and low rates of juvenile arrests and of youth not in school and also not working. Between 2011 and 2015, the state as a whole saw a dramatic decline in the number of juveniles arrested, with Gloucester County experiencing the most significant reduction of about 60 percent. Cape May placed last in safety and well-being, with the highest juvenile arrest rate, percentage of idle teens, and percentage of substantiated or established child abuse or neglect.
Putting the data to work
As always, ACNJ encourages county officials to use the data to evaluate conditions of their children and seek ways to improve their lives.
“From curbing chronic absenteeism to increasing lead testing for young children to addressing child hunger with school breakfast, community leaders can use the data to recognize areas of concern and target resources to improve the lives of children in their county,” Zalkind said. And in light of the upcoming legislative and gubernatorial elections, she urged officials to “use the data to engage with candidates.”
ACNJ has a host of information and reports available on child well-being measures at the county and state levels on its, as well as of key metrics.