2014′s Best and Worst States for Underprivileged Children

by Richie Bernardo

States-with-the-Most-and-Least-Underprivileged-Children-BadgesIn an ideal world, children live carefree. They play with friends, eat nutritious food and receive a good education. They don’t worry about paying bills or searching for their next meal. They’re nurtured, protected and guided by caring adults who provide all their basic needs. Eventually, they become productive members of society. Such are fundamental rights, not privileges. And yet, the United States — one of the most powerful and prosperous countries in the world — has the second highest rate of relative child poverty among economically developed nations.

To put that in perspective, about a fifth, or 16.1 million, of all American children are impoverished, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. In the U.S., a baby is born into poverty every 32 seconds. Every day, 66 babies die before their first birthday. If that isn’t enough to shake one’s moral foundation, consider this: By the end of the day, 1,837 children will have been confirmed as being either abused or neglected.

In light of International Youth Day, the WalletHub team decided to deviate from personal finance topics and instead use its analytical abilities to underscore the social issues that plague one of the most vulnerable groups of Americans. We compared the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia based on their numbers of underprivileged children. By examining 16 key metrics — ranging from infant death rates and children in foster care to child food insecurity rates and percentage of maltreated children — we were able to provide an insightful look into the living and economic conditions of youth in each state.

Main Findings

 

Overall Rank

State

Early Foundations & Economic Well-Being Rank

Health Rank

Education Rank

1 New Hampshire 2 1 6
2 Minnesota 3 4 11
3 New Jersey 4 5 4
4 Connecticut 10 6 7
5 Vermont 25 2 1
6 Massachusetts 17 3 3
7 Wisconsin 11 9 5
8 Iowa 9 12 2
9 Utah 1 29 25
10 Virginia 8 11 14
11 Nebraska 14 14 9
12 North Dakota 7 25 8
13 Pennsylvania 19 10 13
14 Kansas 13 21 10
15 Idaho 4 30 32
16 Wyoming 6 24 22
17 Maryland 15 12 19
18 Colorado 12 18 24
19 Washington 22 7 26
20 South Dakota 16 20 12
21 Illinois 18 16 15
22 Hawaii 20 8 33
23 California 27 17 30
24 New York 36 15 27
25 Delaware 26 23 29
26 Maine 34 22 18
27 Texas 23 37 21
28 Missouri 35 28 15
29 Montana 21 31 35
30 Rhode Island 46 18 22
31 Michigan 32 26 31
32 West Virginia 30 26 37
33 Ohio 33 39 17
34 Indiana 29 45 19
35 Nevada 24 36 47
36 Alaska 28 35 43
37 Tennessee 45 33 28
38 Oregon 39 32 39
39 North Carolina 38 39 34
40 Oklahoma 31 49 40
41 Louisiana 37 37 49
42 Kentucky 47 41 38
43 Georgia 40 43 45
44 Alabama 41 44 44
45 South Carolina 42 46 42
46 Arizona 50 42 46
47 New Mexico 42 47 51
48 Arkansas 44 50 40
49 Florida 48 48 36
50 District of Columbia 51 33 48
51 Mississippi 49 51 50

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Ask the Experts

Every child is entitled to a meaningful childhood. Unfortunately, not all will experience one. In order to identify problem areas and learn how best to address some of them, we’ve asked a panel of experts to share their thoughts. Click on the experts’ profiles to read their bios and responses to the following key questions:

  1. Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?
  2. What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?
  3. Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?
  4. As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

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Jennifer Romich

Associate Professor of Social Welfare, University of Washington
Jennifer Romich
What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

Other commentators have mentioned the need for good paying jobs. Pay is important, but so are work conditions and supports. Better firm and public policies to support parents in balancing work and child-rearing responsibilities would go a long way toward helping low-income American children. Higher earning professionals have access to a lot of supports that many low-income workers lack. For instance, paid parental leave allows parents to bond with and take care of newborns with less stress. Paid sick leave to take care of sick children later in life matters too. These supports are standard across every other developed nation, but in the US many lower-income parents have to choose between taking care of children and keeping their jobs or earnings.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

Elected officials in some cities and states have taken action on these issues. For instance, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have some form of paid family leave. A number of cities including San Francisco and New York have passed paid sick leave requirements. My hometown of Seattle instituted a paid sick leave ordinance in 2012, and I studied the early outcomes of that effort. We found that many more low-wage workers had access to leave as a result of the rule. For instance, there was a five-fold increase in the percentage of hospitality sector employers (restaurants and hotels) that offered paid leave to their workers.

Debbie S. Dougherty

Professor of Communication, University of Missouri
Debbie S. Dougherty
What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

We tend to think of poverty in fairly simple ways: if only the kids were better educated; if only the kids were fed a regular and healthy diet; if only the kids were loved/cared for by their parents. In reality poverty is a complex issue. It is more accurate to think of childhood poverty as a web of social, communicative, and psychological factors that trap children and their families in low wage jobs with little possibility of escape. If I were to choose one issue that prevents underprivileged children from succeeding it would be the stigma of poverty. Children and their families in lower socio-economic classes are highly stigmatized by those from higher socio-economic classes, especially by those who have never experienced poverty.

I have a yet unpublished study where we asked people to describe the typical unemployed person. The standard assumption was that unemployed people were lazy, undereducated, not particularly bright, and sucked off the system via welfare and food stamps. When we asked people how their description would change if the unemployed person was from the middle class, our participants' descriptions changed completely. They described typical unemployed middle class people as down on their luck, working hard to find work, trying to take care of their families. When we asked how their description would change if the unemployed person was from the lower class, our participants reverted back to their original stigmatized assumption of unemployment. I think these findings help explain why people from the lower class struggle to find work. In addition, in a separate study of unemployment, several of the lower class unemployed people we interviewed were starving. One woman had not eaten in two days. She was desperate, yet refused to use the SNAP program to feed herself. Getting the card and shopping for food was so humiliating that she would rather be hungry.

The stigma of poverty humiliates the poor, even with something as physiologically central as procuring food. The stigma of poverty is a great irony in a country that prides itself on the American Dream where all have equal access to wealth. Children's well-being is tied to their parents’ well-being. When parents cannot find work and cannot provide food, the children suffer in every possible way.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

No, elected officials have found it shockingly easy to ignore the needs of underprivileged children. This population is so highly stigmatized that it is politically expedient to ignore their needs. The answer to the last part of the question is simple, and yet unlikely. Before they can act differently, elected officials need to make the bold and courageous decision to care about the needs of underprivileged children.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

We need high quality early childhood care. Middle class parents have fairly easy access to this type of care so it is not surprising that their children tend to excel as they move into adulthood. My own children have always been in excellent care situations. They don't just learn their ABCs, but also learn how to engage in productive conflict and how to be good friends to others. For many years I have been part of The Community Montessori of Columbia, which is a Montessori school developed for underprivileged children in Columbia, Missouri. It is remarkable to watch the children in this school become skillful communicators and young scholars. They are fed a warm and healthy meal every day and also provided with healthy snacks. This provides the fuel they need to be active and engaged learners. Unfortunately, because of the stigma of poverty it has been challenging to fund this school. I am happy that donors are willing to provide donations for causes like college sports. I wish that these people would consider providing matching donations to causes that meet the development needs of underprivileged children. These kids have something unique to offer. They are worth our attention.

Gail F. Melson

Professor Emerita, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University
Gail F. Melson
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

There are a number of factors at play. In my view, three factors stand out: a) the erosion of well-paying skilled and unskilled labor jobs, requiring no more than a high school education. This erosion has been exacerbated by the decline of unions in the U.S. and globalization/out sourcing which exerts downward pressure on wages and benefits. (b) The lack of real (adjusted for inflation) growth in wages for the bottom 80% of wage-earners over the last several generations; and indeed, declines in real wage growth for most; (c) the erosion (and attack on) supportive social services targeted to families with children in poverty. One example is the failure to expand Head Start to all eligible children.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

I would single out the multiple stresses on low income parents - having to work long hours at multiple part time jobs, long commutes to work - lack of good public transportation - lack of paid family leave, etc. Child abuse and homelessness, while serious, do not have the widespread impact that a child-unfriendly society does.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

Clearly, I do not believe that elected officials place priority on the needs of low income children. Their parents do not vote at the same levels as more affluent do; they obviously do not contribute to campaigns; they lack political clout. Low income children are disproportionately African-American, Hispanic or recent immigrants and sadly, there is actual hostility toward these groups, among some sectors of the political class.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

What can we do? A difficult question, in the current polarized political climate. If one believes that social services underwritten by public funds are actually harmful to children, then one would try to cut such services even further. I do not concur with this opinion, but it is widespread. A change in the fundamental assumptions underlying policy would be necessary.

Matthew A. Diemer

Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Educational Technology, Michigan State University
Matthew A. Diemer
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

There are so many reasons, but I want to focus on two. We know that ‘success’ and how much income someone makes is a very intergenerational process – how well your parents and grandparents did has a profound impact on your own life chances, schooling, and earnings. Some of this is just the transfer of wealth across generations via inheritance, stocks, etc. (‘wealth begets wealth’) as well as the ability of wealthier families to invest in later generations – giving them a ‘head start’ in the games of school and work. As you can imagine, families that have some wealth to draw upon are much more able to help their children be successful, in many ways and from childhood all the way into adulthood.

In general, families with more household wealth (and presumably higher incomes) are more able to weather economic ‘shocks’ such as the Great Recession, job loss, significant illness, etc. Lower-income families are much more susceptible to uncontrollable events, and thus making it harder to move out of poverty. There is also a lot of evidence that living in or near poverty exposes children and families to a lot of uncontrollable stresses, and that these external stressors negatively affect development and make it harder for children to achieve the American Dream.

Some of this is also ‘know how.’ More successful families are better-able to guide the schooling of their children, steer their children toward higher-performing schools, interact with school personnel, help their kids explore the world of work, obtain internships and relevant part-time work opportunities, help them make the transition to post-secondary education (and also afford college!), and find better-paying work. It’s not that more affluent families care more than less affluent families (lots of research suggests that lower-income families are very interested in and value their children’s success), it’s just that the more affluent families have more economic resources, more knowledge of how the system works, and more access that makes it more likely that their own children will be successful.

So in short, it’s both ‘wealth begets wealth’ and ‘know how’ across generations. There is strong empirical evidence from Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st century, that the U.S. is much less socially mobile than many believe – or it’s much harder to rise out of poverty than previously thought.

There are also many other reasons, but these two are the two I look at most closely and think about the most.

I think that the ‘real’ number of families who experience poverty-related stress is much higher than 16%. I would like to point out that many scholars and policy ‘wonks’ argue that the federal poverty level is set too low, and doesn’t reflect the ‘real’ costs for families to meet basic needs (e.g., housing, transportation, food, clothing, etc.). Much of this is because the original guidelines for the federal poverty level were set some time ago (1963) and we know that food costs, etc. have changed substantially since that time. As a result, many programs (e.g., Head Start) use some multiplier of the federal poverty threshold (e.g., 150% or 175% of the threshold) to determine eligibility for services. In addition, the federal poverty threshold is a blunt instrument in that it doesn’t account for differential costs of living (whether you live in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas, the federal threshold is the same).

My colleagues Drs. Rashmita Mistry & Nina Chien (2013) have conducted related research, showing that the higher costs of living in high-cost geographic regions was associated with lower levels of children’s academic achievement. As one would expect, living in a more costly area meant that families had a harder time investing time and money into their children’s education, presumably because household income needed to be devoted to household needs.

There is understandable political resistance to raising the federal poverty threshold, however, as doing so would mean a sudden jump in the number of families living in poverty, which no politician would want attributed to their leadership – even if raising the threshold meant that more needy families could receive public services or subsidies.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

I think I touched on this above. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet – people often discriminate against poor or near-poor people – to say nothing of the fact that people of color are overrepresented in the lower rungs of US income ladder and experience racial/ethnic discrimination and racism – which interpersonally makes it harder to succeed.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

There are so many things that we could do! I think universal access to health care is a great start. In addition, more equitable K-12 school funding, a more affordable postsecondary education system, increasing the wages paid for work, etc.

One issue that we haven’t paid as much attention to, is how wealth (i.e., net worth) is so often a ‘silent’ contributor to success, in that we often talk about income but think much less about wealth. Wealth is shared in the U.S. even less equally than income is, and plays such an important role in making the American Dream possible (e.g., if your family is not wealthy, they can’t help you pay for college, you might not feel that college is realistic for you, you can’t receive family assistance to purchase a home). How to fix this is a more complicated question – some people have called for a progressive tax on wealth or raising taxes on inheritance – but one more politically palatable option might be Child Development Accounts (CDAs). Countries such as Singapore and the state of Oklahoma have experimented with these, where an account is automatically opened at a child’s birth, and public funds match any family contributions – the CDAs then grow over time and can be used by the child to help with college, buying a home, etc. There is a lot of evidence that people below the poverty threshold will contribute to CDAs and some evidence that they help children be successful.

Cynthia K. Bradley-King

Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work, University of Pittsburgh
Cynthia K. Bradley-King
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

There are several reasons why families are living in poverty, however the high numbers of single heads of household-especially those led by a female and/or a teen female is primary. The female is usually under-educated and thus under or unemployed and poorly equipped to adequately care for her family.

Child care is expensive and many of these families rely on the eldest child to care for their younger siblings. This places the entire family at risk for child welfare interventions. There are several reasons why there are so many single heads of household including incarceration of one of the adult partners (usually male) and many groups trending away from marriage (more than half of all children are now born without the benefit of their parents being married). Single women with children have a higher risk for living in poverty. All of the above impacts the most vulnerable members of our society (children) and unfortunately too many of these children are African American.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

This question relates directly to your first. Poverty predisposes families to the main type of child maltreatment experienced in the USA - neglect. One of the primary reasons for neglect in the US is substance abuse and many people living in poverty self-medicate with various substances including alcohol. A parent under the influence is incapable of adequately caring for their children. They make poor decisions about supervision, utilize scarce resources for their drug of choice and expose their children to negative influences associated with drugs and alcohol. Again, African Americans are impacted severely by their long term fight to escape poverty.

Christia Spears Brown

Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Kentucky
Christia Spears Brown
What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

One of the biggest issues facing children today is poverty. Poverty is particularly harmful for children because it affects them at every level. For example, because their mothers often received poor prenatal care, poor children are more likely to be born with biological vulnerabilities. They are less likely to have access to high quality day care, which research has shown is helpful for long-term success. They are more likely to go to bed hungry, and even when there is enough food to eat, it is not high in nutrition. Food scarcity is especially problematic in summers, when a primary source of food for poor children, free lunch at school, is not available. Poor children also do not have access to high quality public schools. The schools embedded within poorer neighborhoods are often struggling for basic supplies and qualified teachers. All of these conditions make it very difficult for a child born in poverty to ever escape poverty.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

Definitely not. Children, in general, get neglected by politicians. Despite lip service, politically speaking, children are not a powerful political force. Education at every level (from early child care to higher education) is frequently underfunded. The best thing politicians can do is properly fund public schools, and separate school funding from property taxes, which simply rewards children living in more affluent neighborhoods. If poor children had higher quality education, which prepared them for college or vocational schools, they would have a chance to escape poverty.

Jessica McCrory Calarco

Assistant Professor of Sociology, Indiana University
Jessica McCrory Calarco
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

There is fairly good evidence to suggest that poverty is caused less by the choices that people make than by the challenges they face. Along those lines, it is important to recognize that poverty has two faces: chronic poverty and temporary poverty.

For the chronically poor, poverty is generally the result of cumulative disadvantage. Children born into poverty have limited resources at home, at school, and in their communities. Their parents, for example, may have little time or energy for assisting with school work. Their schools, in turn, may lack guidance counselors to help them navigate choices about course-taking and college-going. And their communities may offer few role models for success in school and professional careers. In light of these disadvantages, children born into poverty are significantly more likely than better-off children to become poor as adults, and that cycle of poverty is extremely difficult to break.

Like the chronically poor, the temporarily poor are often thrust into poverty by forces outside their control. The recent recession, for example, caused many middle-class and working-class families to fall below the poverty line when parents lost their jobs. Given the high cost of raising children in the US today, families may be particularly vulnerable in economic down times. Yet, they may also be the most expendable for employers, who may be wary of workers with childcare responsibilities and may seek to cut healthcare costs by avoiding workers with dependents.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

Children face higher poverty rates than any other group in our society. That lack of economic resources is problematic, in turn, because it affects nearly every aspect of children's lives. Poverty increases the risk of hunger and homelessness. It undermines children's physical health (through lack of access to healthy food, safe places to play, and quality healthcare) as well as their psychological and social well-being (by exposing them to stress and stigma). It undermines learning and achievement.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

The best way to help underprivileged kids is to help underprivileged families. Research shows that child poverty rates are lowest in countries with larger welfare states (e.g., Sweden). Those countries reduce child poverty rates not only by ensuring that all families are better-off financially, but also by supporting families in ways that help families help themselves. That includes policies like paid family leave, free or highly subsidized childcare, and universal, state-sponsored healthcare. Such programs make it easier for families to combine paid work with child raising and help them to avoid shocks (e.g., health crises) that might otherwise throw them into poverty.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

As noted above, the best way to help underprivileged kids is to provide a stronger safety net for underprivileged families. Yet, such policies receive little support in the US. This reflects the fact that while it is easy to see poor children as victims who deserve support, our culture makes it more difficult to view poor parents in the same light. In light of such policy challenges, efforts to deal with child poverty generally focus on treating the symptoms, and do little about the underlying cause. That said, there is good evidence to suggest that universal, high-quality preschool programs (particularly those that couple educational programming with health services and family counseling) can significantly improve life chances for underprivileged kids.

Jennifer Hook

Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Southern California
Jennifer Hook
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

Although 16% of families live in poverty, this represents 22% of American children. Many factors are at play. We have an economy that does not produce enough living wage jobs particularly for workers without a college education and younger workers, who are likely to head families with small children. We also have a very small social safety net compared to many other advanced industrialized countries. Some countries have pre-tax and transfer rates of child poverty just as high as the US, but they use social policy to drastically reduce the number of children growing up in poverty.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

The lack of affordable, high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a huge problem for young children and families. It forces families to make untenable choices between work and the care of small children and deprives many children of quality care and early learning. Housing instability, homelessness, and chronic stress are other key issues affecting poor children.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

No they're not. One way to help meet the needs of underprivileged children is to meet the needs of all children. For example, providing high quality ECEC to all children, with fees on a sliding scale, would be more politically popular than providing it only to poor children when many working (and middle) class families struggle to provide their children with the same opportunities.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

By providing quality ECEC, K-12, and access to higher education and ensuring that all jobs pay a living wage.

Ezra Rosser

Professor of Law at Washington College of Law, American University
Ezra Rosser
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

Explaining why so many people live in poverty in the United States is difficult because there are both numerous explanations and conflicting theories. One answer is that we do less than many other developed countries to lift people out of poverty using tax and transfer policies (Jared Bernstein has a nice chart on this that we used in our poverty law textbook). Another answer is that our economy is currently structured in such a way that large numbers of individuals do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty even when they have full time jobs.Although some explanations for the structure of the economy point to gains in returns to education as driving some of the negative impacts at the bottom of the income distribution, policies, beginning around the time of the first and second OPEC oil embargos of the 1970s and heating up in the Reagan years, have also ensured that even as productivity grew, wages stagnated for a large portion of the population. Productivity growth in other words was largely captured by the wealthy. (A great source of charts on this is available from The State of Working America website.)

Of course, it remains the case that many people continue to blame the poor for their poverty. Since I do not subscribe to that school of thought, I have very little to say on it, though I think the best responses to the line of thought championed by Charles Murray in his book Losing Ground (1984) have come from scholars pointing out the structural barriers many people encounter. In particular, William Julius Wilson does a great job showing how structural problems can translate into behaviors that make sense but can harm communities.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

This too is a hard question because it all comes down to what issue is most harming the particular child. My own view is that hunger (including reliable access to quality food) and housing are basic issues that we as a society have still not addressed well. SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps benefits, do not cover children for the entire month, leaving children food insecure, especially when school is not in session so they do not get free and reduced meals there. A similar problem exists with regard to adequate and reliable housing. Without such housing, children suffer in all sorts of ways and in ways that have a lasting impact on their lives. Yet, as can be seen in the long waitlists for Section 8 and other forms of housing assistance, we have not made decent housing for the poor, including children, a priority.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

No is the simple answer. And in addition to hunger and housing, there is a need to rethink public education. Right now the educational opportunities available to children depend primarily upon the wealth of their parents – tied to a considerable extent to housing location and school district lines. My own view is that local funding of education through property taxes serve largely to protect the wealthy while harming the poor. As Jonathan Kozol has demonstrated repetitively, the education available to the poor as well as the facilities can be shockingly bad and fly in the face of arguments that the country is a land of equal opportunity.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

Whatever one’s feelings about the fault of those who are poor, children are not at fault for having been born into poor families. We must do a better job providing a guarantee that basic needs will be met. We as a society are rich enough to do so, it is morally right, and will pay long term dividends to both individuals and society. One issue that Prof. Peter Edelman and N.Y. Times Reporter, Jason DeParle have highlighted is that the number of people living in extreme poverty (living on less than half the poverty line) and reliant solely on food stamps has shot up which is a sign that our safety net has lots of holes. Finally, though poverty is often treated as an issue distinct from wealth, the rise in inequality over the last 40 years shows that we have to rein in the winner-take-all economy so that the American Dream once again is a possibility for more people.

Melissa Wooten

Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Melissa Wooten
Around 16% of families in the U.S. have incomes below the poverty level. What are the main reasons behind such a high number?

There are many reasons behind this figure. One that stands out to me is the lack of access to jobs that provide stability and inter-generational upward mobility. With the shift from a production based to a knowledge based economy in the U.S., we’ve witnessed the loss of the types of jobs that once allowed for families to do well in the present while also securing the future for their children. For example, my father, whom did not graduate from high school, attained work in an automotive factory. This job provided a wage that enabled my parents to pay for the bills, purchase a home, take family vacations, and save money for their children’s college education. His children now work as knowledge professionals in occupations that don’t involve demanding physical labor. These sorts of opportunities to secure your present while also changing the fate of your children’s lives are becoming rarer. That is one of the reasons why we see the number families living in poverty that we do.

What are the key issues (e.g., abuse, homelessness, etc.) that are affecting children in the U.S.?

One on the key issues affecting children in the U.S. is the lack of resources in and attention given to the neighborhoods where poor, impoverished, and at-risk children live. When is the last time you turned on the news, flipped open your newspaper, or browsed online and found a discussion of rural poverty and how the isolation it produces negatively impacts educational achievement? The impoverished and their children largely exist as a parody for us (e.g., Honey Boo Boo). But we don’t give near enough attention to how living in an impoverished community affects the resources that families and schools can bring to bear to tackle the educational challenges students face.

Are elected officials placing a sufficiently high priority on the needs of underprivileged children? What can they do differently?

It’s not that elected officials aren’t giving priority to the needs of underprivileged children. For instance, programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top specifically target low-income, underprivileged children and the school districts they attend. However, these programs focus on things that don’t address poverty at its core. Such programs tend to place too much emphasis on teachers and the role they play in promoting student achievement to the neglect of addressing the ways in which poverty in and of itself creates barriers to achievement. No matter how well teachers teach, children lacking access to adequate nutrition, health-care, and housing will struggle to achieve. Yes, success stories will exist – those kids that seem to make it against all odds – but on average children living in such circumstances will find it hard to do well in school.

As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

As a society we can do a better job of understanding the multi-faceted nature of poverty and its consequences for educational achievement. As an example, many impoverished children struggle with reading. Yet, in many cases, these difficulties are not at all related to developmental problems, but instead can be traced to inadequate health-care, particularly vision coverage. These children struggle to read simply because they need glasses. We can also do a better job investing in and promoting affordable higher education alternatives such as historically black colleges and universities. With the disappearance of well-paying industrial and factory jobs, college education is now the primary means of attaining a middle-class lifestyle. Children from low-income or impoverished backgrounds need to be aware of the full range of educational options available. Without this knowledge, these children may feel that they have been priced out of a college education and may forgo a path that is now necessary to achieve economic security.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, The Earth Institute, Columbia University
Jeffrey D. Sachs
As a society, how can we best help underprivileged kids live a meaningful childhood and eventually realize the American Dream?

My short answer to a long set of conundrums is that we should look closely (and emulate!) what the Scandinavian social democracies do. They support families in multiple ways to ensure that the kids do not suffer life-long liabilities of being born in poor households. With state-provided medical care, maternal and paternal leave, child care, family support, and quality public education, the social democracies break the intergenerational poverty trap. It's a great model.

Methodology

To study the living and economic conditions of youth in each state, WalletHub ranked the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia across 16 key metrics, ranging from infant death rates and children in foster care to child food insecurity rates and percentage of maltreated children. By bringing key issues to the forefront, WalletHub aims to engender change and galvanize groups to act on behalf of society’s future propellers.

The corresponding weights we used are shown below. The three categories under which the metrics are listed were used for organizational purposes only and did not factor in to our overall rankings.

Early Foundations & Economic Well-Being

  • % of Children in Foster Care: 1
  • % of Children in Single-Parent Families: 1
  • % of Children Living with Grandparents Responsible for them with No Parent in the Home: 1
  • % of Children in Households with Below-Poverty Income: 1
  • % of Children living in Households with Public Assistance: 0.5
  • Ratio of Children living in Renter-Occupied Housing Units to Children living in Owner-Occupied Housing Units: 0.5
  • Economic Mobility Rank: 1
  • Homeless Persons in Families per Capita: 1

Health

  • % of Children without Health Insurance Coverage: 1
  • % of Maltreated Children: 1
  • Child Food Insecurity Rate: 1
  • Infant Deaths Rate: 1
  • Child Death Rate: 1

Education

  • Public High School Graduation Rate: 0.5
  • Best School System Ranking: 0.5
  • % of Teens Ages 16 to 19 not attending School and not working: 1

 

Sources: Data used to create these rankings is courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services - Administration for Children and Families, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Educational Statistics, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Equality of Opportunity Project, the Kids Count - Anney E. Casey Foundation, Feeding America and WalletHub research.

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Richie Bernardo is a financial writer at WalletHub. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism and a minor in business from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously, Richie was a journalism…
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