The States That Are Failing Their Children

The states adding the largest number of young people tend to produce the worst outcomes for kids.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 14: McDonogh #35 Senior High School graduates stand at their commencement at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on May 14, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors attempted to use the convention center as a shelter of last resort in the days following the storm, yet it lacked power, water, food and medical supplies. McDonogh 35 was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Katrina and was the first high school for African-Americans in the state of Louisiana. It is one of the last remaining traditional public schools in the city. The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which killed at least 1836 and is considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, is August 29. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) (National Journal)

America's nurseries are failing at their job.

The states that are adding the largest number of young people tend to produce the worst outcomes for kids, judged by such measures as high school graduation, access to health insurance, and exposure to poverty. The states that produce the best outcomes for kids tend to be either stagnant or declining in their youth populations.

That means the nation is increasingly relying for its future workforce and consumers on the states that are achieving the least success — and often making the least effort — to equip their kids to succeed. "The fact that we have so many kids living in parts of the country where the outcomes aren't as good "... is something we are going to pay for later," says demographer Bill Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

These stark conclusions emerge from a comparison of Frey's analysis of the trends in the youth population for all 50 states with the latest Kids Count data book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Full disclosure: Casey is among the sponsors for the Next America project at National Journal that I supervise.) Casey ranks the condition of children in the states across 16 quantitative indicators in education, health, family, and the economy. From these individual assessments, Casey synthesizes a cumulative rank of well-being for children in each state.

Comparing that ranking with Frey's analysis of changes in the 20-and-younger population for each state from 2000 through 2014 produces stark results that are ominous for the nation's future economic vitality and social stability.

The 15 states that Casey ranked as producing the best outcomes for kids are mostly clustered in New England (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut), the Midwest (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin) and the mid-Atlantic (New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia). But in nine of the 15 highest-ranked states, the number of young people declined from 2000 through 2014, Frey found. Only in Utah and Virginia on that list did the number of young people increase by at least 5 percent.

The 15 states that Casey ranked as producing the weakest outcomes for kids are clustered in the Sun Belt (ranging west from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to Texas, Nevada, and California) and Appalachia (West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky). In nine of the 15 lowest-ranked states, the number of young people increased from 2000 through 2014. The increase reached double digits in six of them.

In all, nearly 37 million young people, representing fully 45 percent of Americans under 20, now live in the 15 states at the bottom of the Casey list. Just 15 million young people, representing only 19 percent of the under-20 population, live in the 15 states atop the list. Moving forward, this gap may only widen: Of the 15 states that experienced the largest percentage increase in their youth population from 2000 to 2014, nine rank in Casey's bottom 15 and just one in its top 15.

An imposing chasm separates kids' experiences across these states. The share of children in poverty is lower than the national average (of 22 percent in 2013) on all 15 states topping the list. The share of children in poverty exceeds the national average in all 15 states at the bottom, including Texas (25 percent), Arizona (26 percent), and Georgia (27 percent). Results for high school graduation rates and access to health insurance follow similar patterns.

One other chasm separates the highest and lowest-ranked states: diversity. Minorities represent a majority of kids under 20 in just two of the 15 highest-ranked states. Minorities already represent a majority of the under-20 population in eight of the 15 lowest ranked states (including Georgia, Florida, Texas, and California), and at least two-fifths in four others.

Today, the Sun Belt states most acutely face the challenge of equipping more kids of color to reach the middle class. But that is increasingly becoming a national necessity. Frey's data show that the absolute number of white kids under 20 has declined in 46 of the 50 states since 2000. Against that backdrop, a failure to elevate the minority kids comprising a growing share of the workforce almost everywhere will hurt not only their states, but also our national economic competitiveness.

Largely for that reason, Rolf Pendall, director of community policy at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, says the U.S. can no longer accept the historic division that effectively allocated primary funding responsibility for programs affecting seniors to Washington and for programs affecting kids to the states. "Increasingly it's a limited number of states, and a limited number of metro areas, that are the nurseries of the future workforce," Pendall says. "That means it's in the national interest to provide for maximizing the life chances of kids [in those] places. That's "... not charity. It's investment."

That recognition could translate into providing a national baseline of services, like access to preschool and health insurance for all kids, and a livable wage for parents. But it also means all Americans will lose if the states most responsible for nurturing the next generation don't commit to the challenge more urgently than they are today.