South Carolina improves child well-being ranking. What's it doing right?

In the face of persistent poverty, South Carolina shows 'slow and steady progress' in a new ranking of child well-being by state.

Matt York/AP/File
Children eat a free lunch at the Phoenix Day @ Central Park Youth Program in downtown Phoenix in July 2014.

Children in South Carolina are doing better overall, despite a range of setbacks, according to a report released on Tuesday. 

The state placed 41st overall in a child's chance of succeeding – the state's highest-ever position and one spot up from the previous year – in the national Kids Count survey, carried out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Children's Trust of South Carolina. Minnesota ranked the highest, followed by Massachusetts, and Iowa.

It's a small sign of progress in a report that otherwise paints a sobering picture for the challenges that children most overcome, particularly those in low-income families, in order to lead productive lives. 

The survey used four key indicators to determine child well-being: economics, education, health, and family and community.

South Carolina's ascent in the ranking, according to the study's authors, was driven by improvements in child health, including a reduction in child and teen deaths, and increased access to health insurance. 

"Fewer children lacked access to health insurance coverage in 2014 than before the recession, despite higher unemployment and a decline in employer-sponsored health insurance coverage during the past several years," said the report. Only 6 percent of the state's children lacked health insurance in 2014 – an improvement from 13 percent in 2008.

Sue Williams, chief executive officer of Children's Trust in South Carolina, said the findings showed "slow and steady progress" but added that the state has a long way to go. Ms. Williams stressed that decreasing poverty is key to improving other factors that have an effect on a child's well-being. 

"For South Carolina to rise out of the bottom 10, we must help parents earn what it takes to support a family, and we must work to ensure children are getting the education they need for the future," said Williams. "With education and financial security, families have more opportunity to succeed, and that can have a significant impact to reduce the stressors that can lead to child abuse and neglect."

On poverty and education, two of the other key indicators utilized by the survey, the state appears have taken a step back. The percentage of children living in poverty rose to 27 percent in 2014, from 22 percent in 2008. More children were not attending pre-school (56 percent) and 74 percent of eighth graders were considered not proficient in math. 

The report also noted a "deep and stubbornly persistent" racial gap across the nation, with children of color more likely to face "steep barriers to success." African-American children, for instance, were more likely to live in single-parent families and in high-poverty neighborhoods. And native American children were twice as likely to lack health insurance.

Data from the Kids Count survey is considered vital for nationwide child well-being projects like those of the Children's Trust, which runs programs on parenting for first-time mothers and parents of older children, and works with lawmakers on child-safety issues.

As Stephanie Hanes of the Christian Science Monitor reported in May 2014, governments on the local, state, and federal levels are allocating more and more dollars toward parenting programs. Those dollars reflect governments' bet that inequality can be solved – or at least abated over the long run – by improving parenting.

Parental improvement might seem like a national pastime these days, given the unprecedented volume of advice books, blogs, and lectures coming at moms and dads across all demographics. But for lower-income women ... across the country, improved parenting skills can not only increase a family's happiness, it can also dramatically improve a child's long-term educational achievement, lower the chances of juvenile delinquency, improve health measures, and reduce poverty, according to a growing coalition of child-development experts and scientists."

In a press release, the Children's Trust policy director Megan Branham, pointed to a number of specific policies that could help children and their families continue to improve in South Carolina. 

"Expand the choices of quality, affordable child care services; make available a state earned-income tax credit to help working families meet basic needs; and utilize racial impact assessments to increase equity and opportunity for children of color, who continue to face significant barriers to their success," said Ms. Branham.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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