California and the Curious Case of Child Well-Being

In 2010, Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report – one of the few annual efforts to gauge the lives of youths in each state – pronounced that California was one of the top 20 states in the nation when it came to child well-being.

Two years later, California was declared the 10th worst, a rank it held again in 2013.

What happened? Is the quality of life for California children eroding like the coast of sunny Malibu?

Not exactly. It appears that a reorganization of how Kids Count assesses each state resulted in subtle changes in the rankings for most states, but a drastic revision of how the report sees life for California’s youth. Here’s the whole story.

Each year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation puts out Kids Count. The information is presented in state-by-state reports, and each state is given an overall aggregate ranking relative to the other states.

It is one of the few annual attempts to gauge life for children in this country, along with the federal Key National Indicators of Well-Being and the Homeland Insecurity report by Every Child Matters. Of those, Kids Count is the only one of those that seeks to foster a sense of competitive pride among states with its national rankings system.

The overall rankings almost never change drastically. Mississippi might not be dead last every year, but it comes pretty close. New Hampshire isn’t a perennial number one, but it doesn’t ever stray from the top five.

Last decade, California was no different. In 2007 the state ranked 19th overall, respectable considering the size of the state and its high number of big cities. It slipped to 22in 2008, then pinballed back to 20 in 2009 and 19 in 2010.

All evidence of the overall rankings for 2011 seem to have disappeared from the Kids Count website. With the 2012 report came an announcement that Kids Count had replaced its old method of calculating state rank, which was based on 10 indicators.

In its place came a set of 16 indicators split into four overarching domains: Economic Well-Being; Education; Family and Community; and Health. Six of the indicators are holdovers from the old system

Under the new ranking method, California dropped from 19th in 2010 to forty-first in 2012. In this year’s report: 41st again.

The Golden State was singular in the scope of its freefall. Twenty-four states stayed within three spots of their 2010 ranking, and another ten states stayed within five spots. Maryland was the closest yin to California’s yang, rising 15 spots from middle of the pack to the top ten.

So what happened? The change in indicators seems to have created a rankings “perfect storm” for California, in which less weight is now given to California’s strengths and more weight is given to its apparent weaknesses.

For starters, the old Kids Count method counted, individually, the death rate for three sets of youth: teens between 14-19, children from one to 14, and infants. California was strong on all three, and in 2010 had the fifth lowest infant mortality rate in the nation.

In the new version, infant mortality is not counted, and the other two death rates are combined into one category (Child Death Rate, 1-19). California ranks seventh overall on that indicator.

So California was, and is, above average when it comes to children not dying; how did it do on the other holdover indicators from the old ranking system? California stayed about the same on most of them. It improved on percent of low-birthweight babies, and fell back on two: the percent of teens that are neither working nor in school, and the percent of children with both parents lacking secure employment.

But on Kids Count’s new indicators, California is dismal almost across the board. Casey did not publish state ranks for each of the 16 indicators in 2012 and 2013, but here is each new indicator (they are all percentages) with the number of states who performed better than California:

Children living in households with a high housing cost burden
States doing better: 49

Children living in high-poverty neighborhoods
States doing better: 33

Children in families where household heads have no high-school diploma
States doing better: 49

Children with no insurance
States doing better: 32

Children not attending pre-school
States doing better: 16

Fourth graders not proficient in reading
States doing better: 45 better

Eighth graders no proficient in math
States doing better: 43

High-schoolers not graduating on time
States doing better: 27

Teens who abuse drugs/alcohol
States doing better: 43 better

Those first three new indicators paint a pretty rough picture. They suggest that a lot of California families are living in high-poverty areas, are paying a lot to live there, and are headed by adults who, without a high school diploma, have low prospects of improving the situation.

In summary, the leaders of Kids Count wanted to look at poverty beyond the percentage of children living “in” it, and also gauge academic progress over time instead of clocking outcomes at high school graduation. Seen through that new filter, California is the tenth worst state when it comes to the well-being of children.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.