Counting the Ways Racial Disparities Persist Among Children in New Jersey

Colleen O'Dea | November 25, 2019 | Social
NJ compares well with other states for kids’ health and general circumstances, but new report shows that children of color remain disadvantaged
Credit: BrittNashPix/Twenty20
Kids Count gives a glimpse into equity issues affecting children at county level.

New Jersey children are among the healthiest and wealthiest in the nation, but these favorable life conditions are not universal throughout the state, especially for children of color, according to a new report.

The New Jersey Kids Count County Data Dashboard, published Friday by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, for the first time includes some measures of child well-being by race and ethnicity, providing a glimpse into equity issues affecting children at the county level.

“We’ve known for a long time that children of color are more likely to face poorer outcomes in every domain of child well-being and state leaders have become increasingly focused on addressing these disparities,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of ACNJ.

In previous counts, for instance, Cumberland County has typically ranked as one of the counties where children are the most disadvantaged in the state and last year it had the lowest median family income — slightly less than $50,000. The current data shows wide differences even within Cumberland County, where black and Hispanic children face much greater challenges than white youth:

  • Fourteen percent of non-Hispanic white children in Cumberland were living in poverty last year — in families with incomes of less than $26,000 for a family of four — which is roughly the same as the state average for all youth. But the poverty rate was 22% for Hispanic children and 23% for African Americans.
  • White babies had an advantage from the start, as about 73% of pregnant white women got early prenatal care and just 8% of babies were born with low birthweights in 2017, compared with two-thirds of Hispanic women and 59% of black women getting prenatal care and one in 10 Hispanic babies and almost 15% of African Americans born with low birthweights.
  • Black teens accounted for 68% of juvenile detention admissions in 2017 but comprise just 20% of the population, while Hispanics made up 47% of the population and 28% of detained youth. Whites, who were almost a third of all youths, were just 6% of those placed in juvenile detention facilities.

In wealthier counties like Hunterdon and Somerset, where the median family income is more than three times greater than in Cumberland, all children fared better overall than in poorer ones, but white youths still tended to have advantages over black and Hispanic juveniles when data was available. Racial and ethnic breakdowns were not always available in counties with relatively small populations of blacks and Hispanics or when there were too few cases for the data to be considered statistically valid.

State has tried to tackle the problems

Zalkind noted that the state is undertaking initiatives to try to improve life for all children and to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in some areas. The Kids Count — which covers topics that include child and family economics, early care and education, child health, child protection, school children, and teens and young adults — is meant to provide data to show where improvement is needed and nudge officials at the state and local levels to make changes.

“We commend the state’s efforts to tackle these issues head on and acknowledge that change does not happen overnight,” she said. “Our hope is that the data dashboard serves as a baseline for policymakers to assess the impact of current efforts to ensure that every child has a pathway to a productive future.”

One area that New Jersey officials have pledged to improve is maternal and infant health. Zalkind noted that “First Lady Tammy Murphy has prioritized reducing rates of infant and maternal mortality as well as addressing corresponding racial disparities.”

These disparities are significant.

For instance, 8% of all babies in New Jersey are born with low birthweights, but among black newborns, that figure is 12%. Black and Hispanic mothers-to-be received prenatal care beginning in the first trimester at rates below the state average and in Mercer County, fewer than half got care.

Black infants are more than three times more likely to die before their first birthday, at a rate of 9.6 per 1,000 births, than white babies, at 2.6 per 1,000 births. Atlantic, Camden and Mercer counties all had double-digit black infant mortality rates, at 14.5, 14.2 and 15.1 per 1,000 births, respectively.

Zalkind said statewide reforms have resulted in dramatic declines in both the number of youth admitted to detention centers annually and the number of children living in foster care. However, racial disparities persist.

Black children comprise 41% of children in foster care and 63% of all juvenile detention center admissions, although they make up less than 15% of the state’s total child population.

“The state Judiciary and the NJ Department of Children and Families have a renewed focus on racial disparities in children in out-of-home placement,” Zalkind said. “The disparities draw attention to the need for stronger investments and access to services and programs for New Jersey children and youth.”