Missouri and Illinois slip in national ranking on child well-being

Missouri and Illinois children continue to hover near the middle of the pack in an annual assessment of the well-being of the nation’s children.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2013 Kids Count survey ranked Missouri 27th and Illinois 23rd in the overall annual assessment, which looks at 16 statistical indicators that cover economic, educational and health factors.

Both states lost ground from last year’s report, when Missouri ranked 26th and Illinois 21st nationwide. This year, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey ranked as the five best states for children, with New Hampshire at the top. Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi and New Mexico ranked in the bottom five. For the first time in the report’s history, Louisiana rose out of the bottom slot, replaced by New Mexico. Oklahoma improved the most in the rankings, to 36th from 40th last year. Georgia fell six spots, to 43rd from 37th.

Child advocates in Missouri and Illinois said the lingering effects of the recent recession were still adversely impacting children. Child poverty — particularly among very young children — continues to rise in both states. The current report said that 22 percent of both Missouri and Illinois children live in poverty, matching the national average. Those percentages are up significantly since 2005, when both states had a child poverty rate of 19 percent.

In Missouri, the slight slip reflected stronger gains in other states and an ongoing decline in economic well-being among the state’s children and parents. The report said 306,000 of Missouri’s children were living in poverty, up 1 percent from last year. Missouri jumped to 35 percent from 32 percent regarding the number of children living in single-parent families, and the number of children living in high poverty areas increased to 9 percent from 5 percent.

About 446,000 children have parents who lack secure employment, and 444,000 children live in households with a high housing cost burden.

Overall the state improved from last year in educational, health and family support indicators. The report found a 2 percent gain from last year in the number of young children attending preschool in Missouri, as well as improvements in proficiencies in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math. The improvements moved Missouri to 21st from 24th in education nationwide.

Illinois also slipped in its economic well-being for children, with a sharp 3 percent increase in child poverty from last year. About 658,000 of the state’s children now live in poverty. Despite a recovering economy, the report found nearly a third of the state’s children had parents without secure employment, up 1 percent from last year.

But Illinois also showed some gains in education with more children graduating from high school on time, though officials with Voices for Illinois Children cautioned that more gains needed to be made in educating the state’s most at-risk children. In 2011, fourth-grade reading scores for low-income students in Illinois were lowest in the Midwest and second lowest among the nation’s 10 most populous states.

Illinois continues to distinguish itself in child healthcare, with about 96 percent of children having health coverage. In Missouri, where recent efforts to expand Medicaid failed in the Legislature, 7 percent of children, or about 95,000, have no health coverage.

The study found that, overall, the recession is still having a negative impact on children around the country. But it also found key improvement in education. Health indicators for children nationwide also improved, with gains in health insurance coverage and drops in child and teen mortality and teen substance abuse. The percentage of low-birth weight babies also declined slightly.