New Jersey children are among the healthiest and best educated in the nation, but they are also more economically challenged than average and wide gaps continue to exist among children of different races, according to a new report on child well-being.
The 2019 Kids Count Data Book, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranks New Jersey fifth best in the nation overall on measures that include standardized testing, economic well-being and health insurance. New Jersey’s best category was education, in which it came second in the nation, behind Massachusetts. It ranked third for health. New Hampshire took the overall top spot.
Officials with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which works with the foundation on Kids Count in the state, said that despite the state’s overall high rankings, there are significant racial gaps in educational outcomes, economic well-being and maternal and infant mortality. That means the state needs to do more to ensure equal opportunity for all, particularly given that more than half of the state’s youth are children of color.
“Our state has changed over the last 30 years, and we have made great strides, but we must continue investing in our children in order to ensure that they have bright futures,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s president and CEO.
Data on New Jersey’s roughly 1.9 million children from the new national report shows economic well-being as the area in which the state ranks poorest — 28th among the states. Particularly onerous is the data showing that 37 percent of children are in families that were burdened by high housing costs in 2017. While that’s better than in 2010 at the official end of the Great Recession — when close to half of families with children were paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing — it’s worse than the national average of 31 percent. High housing costs is the only measure in which New Jersey fared worse than the nation as a whole.
Where New Jersey did well
New Jersey children fared best in the nation in a number of specific measures.
For instance, while state and medical officials consider opioid abuse to be an epidemic, New Jersey was one of seven states with the lowest substance abuse rate in the nation — 3 percent. And New Jersey and Rhode Island shared the distinction of having the lowest child death rate from all causes — 16 per 100,000 in 2017.
The state’s child death rate is less than half of what it was in 1990, when the first Kids Count report was produced. Back then, 36 of every 100,000 children were dying each year.
New Jersey has made gains in other areas too. Fewer children lived in families where a parent lacked full-time, year-round employment in 2017, a drop of 11 percent since 2010. There were also fewer children living in families led by a parent without a high school education, and teen birth rates continued to decline.
In the area of education, the state has consistently ranked highly over several years. Of note, 64 percent of three- and four-years-olds attend preschool and nine of 10 high school students graduate on time.
Where New Jersey did not do well
There were only two of 16 measures on which New Jersey fared worse in 2017 than several years earlier: The proportion of children living in single-parent families rose to 30 percent and the proportion of children living in high-poverty areas, which tend to have higher levels of crime and unemployment, increased to 9 percent.
ACNJ officials also remain concerned that more than 270,000 New Jersey children continue to live in poverty, a 27 percent increase over the last three decades.
Also concerning is New Jersey’s rank near the middle of the states for its percentage of low-birth weight babies. Close to 8 percent of children born in the state each year — more than 8,000 in 2017 — weighed less than 5.5 pounds. Such children have a high probability of experiencing developmental problems and short- and long-term disabilities. They also are at greater risk of dying within the first year of life.
One goal of the annual Kids Count reports is to prompt officials to take note of areas of concern and take actions to improve the lives of children.
The new national report, which includes data for all the states, comes less than a week after ACNJ released a similar study of children in Trenton that demonstrates how children there do not fare nearly as well as children in the rest of the state. For instance, 40 percent of Trenton children were living in poverty in 2017, up from 35 percent in 2013, while the statewide child poverty rate was a much lower 14 percent and had declined from 17 percent four years earlier.
Trenton’s ‘sobering picture’
Zalkind said that the Trenton Kids Count “paints a sobering picture of how the city’s nearly 22,400 children are faring,” but it also “provides a blueprint for change and the work that needs to be done.”
Trenton is undertaking several initiatives aimed at improving maternal and infant health outcomes. The city’s Mayor Reed Gusciora said last week that the latest data on Trenton’s children should serve as a call to action to make life better for youth in the state’s capital.
“It is my hope that readers of this report will feel empowered to use the data to make a difference and move the needle forward for Trenton’s children,” he said. “I ask residents of Trenton to roll up their sleeves, use the data and join me as we work together to make sure Trenton’s kids count!”