Once again Vermont finished high in the ranking of children’s well-being released earlier this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The foundation’s Kids Count survey of the states measures children’s well-being in 16 categories relating to economic well-being, health, education and family and community. These include categories such as the number of children living in poverty, the number living where no parent has a full-time job, school achievement, babies’ birth weight, teen births and others.
In figures for 2012, Vermont ranked second highest overall, behind only New Hampshire. That meant Vermont had moved up a notch from the previous year, supplanting Massachusetts in the number two spot. The other top 10 states were Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Connecticut and Maryland.
Geographically, the survey reveals a broad pattern. The states of the Northeast and the upper Midwest generally finished highest; the Deep South and the Southwest finished the lowest.
New Mexico dropped to the lowest ranking this year, taking the place of Mississippi at the bottom. Also in the bottom 10 were California, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arizona and Nevada.
The largest states, with teeming metropolitan populations, did not rank high. In addition to California and Texas, these included New York at 29, Florida at 38 and Illinois at 23.
One of the important contributors to child well-being has been parents’ employment. In states battered by the recession, where unemployment has spiked, child welfare has suffered. This accounts, in part, for the low ranking of Arizona, Nevada and California.
Some of the highest ranking states were small and ethnically homogeneous, without the pressures of immigration or economic dislocation caused by urban unemployment. Vermont and New Hampshire fall into that category. Other high-ranking states owed their prosperity to their proximity to centers of wealth. These would include Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Connecticut.
Another category of high-ranking states includes those Midwestern states with a liberal tradition of attention to social welfare. Minnesota and Iowa are prime examples.
By contrast the states of the Deep South have always had an aversion to social welfare programs. Some of them are resisting the health care advances promised by Obamacare even though their children’s health indicators are low. For example, 13 percent of Texas children lack health insurance, compared to 2 percent in Vermont.
Education receives scant support from some Southern states, partly because of the legacy of racism. In some places where whites have fled to private schools, the public schools are predominantly black, and state government does not feel motivated to provide adequate funding.
It may be more than a coincidence that some of the states who place low in the ranking for child welfare also have the most regressive tax systems, meaning poor and middle-income taxpayers pay more and wealthy taxpayers pay less. These would include Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona and Alabama, according to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Vermont is among the least regressive states though the wealthy still pay a smaller percentage of their total income in taxes than middle- and low-income taxpayers.
Providing resources to support the health and welfare of children is a choice. It requires raising the money to do so. Other factors, such as global recession and the tides of immigration, also affect the welfare of both children, but communities willing to take their own destinies into their hands and defend their own interests, rather than adopting a stance of passivity, stand a better chance of withstanding the buffeting of economic change.
One of the reasons for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s troubles with the Legislature this year was his slate of proposals to dismantle some of the structures that have supported children’s welfare, including the state’s welfare program and the income support provided to the working poor. That Vermont finishes high in the Kids Count ranking is not a reason to scale back the state’s support. It’s a reason to affirm the state’s determination that kids count in Vermont.
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