Montana Improves Ranking for Child Well-Being

July 21, 2015

MISSOULA – While the economy has made gains since the Great Recession, it has left many Montana families in poverty, according to the newly released 2015 KIDS COUNT Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. More than 47,000 Montana children, or 21 percent of the total child population, live in poverty. The 2015 Data Book can be found online at http://www.aecf.org/.

“The child poverty rate in our state has remained more or less stagnant over the years,” said Jennifer Calder, communications director for Montana KIDS COUNT.

Nearly one-third of children live in families where no parent has full-time employment, and even when parents are working full time, wages and benefits often are not sufficient to adequately support a family.

“We know that kids succeed when families succeed,” Calder said. “When we invest in two-generation strategies to address persistent poverty, we can create meaningful change.”

The 2015 Data Book, which focuses on key trends in child well-being in the post-recession years, measures child well-being in four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. The Casey Foundation report finds the rising tide of recovery, with both increased employment and more concentrated wealth, has left pockets of low-income, struggling communities and families.

            Since the 2014 report, Montana’s overall ranking improved one spot from 31st in the nation, to 30th. The most positive change has been improvement of the state’s rank in children’s health. The previous two years, Montana was ranked 50th in the United States for children’s health. This year, the state moved up to 47th. The state has seen significant gains in the number of children with health insurance coverage, and decreases in the rate of teen alcohol and drug abuse.

Montana’s ranking for education slipped in the study, in large part due to a decrease in preschool enrollment. Many other states have more children attending preschool, Montana has fewer. This is significant, as high-quality, early education lays a foundation for future learning and development.

“It’s like building a house,” Calder said. “If you have a strong foundation, you’ll have a strong house with few problems. If you have a weak foundation, you can expect a lot of problems down the road.”

Children who attend high-quality preschool are more likely to be successful in school, to graduate and attend college. In addition, low-income working parents are better able to work when they have consistent high-quality care for their children.

Montana’s rank for economic well-being improved to the 20th spot. One of the drivers is that there are fewer “idle” teens that are not in school or not working, which means more teens are in school and graduating. The report finds that despite the improvement in the overall economic well-being ranking, children living in poverty in Montana remain a persistent problem. While we are several years into the economic recovery, approximately one in five children live in poverty in Montana, the same as in 2008.

Race is one of the strongest factors influencing a child’s economic stability. Data show the economic recovery of the past several years has bypassed many children of color.

“The national averages belie the stark reality that millions of children, particularly American Indian, African-American and Latino children live on the precipice of poverty,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy for the Casey Foundation. “Today, as the economy recovers, we see a widening gap between the living standards of many children of color and other kids.”

National and state-level policies have proven that investments in health can create lasting positive differences for children. In Montana, there has been a 30 percent decrease in the overall number of children without health insurance coverage since 2008, with the expansion of public health insurance under Healthy Montana Kids.

However, while 10 percent of all Montana children currently do not have health insurance, 28 percent of American Indian children in Montana do not have health insurance..

While Montana has seen slight improvements in child and teen death rate, the state needs to continue to improve by enacting policies in the areas of traffic safety, suicide prevention and substance-abuse prevention.

In terms of increasing economic security for families with children, tax credits such as Federal and State Earned Income Tax Credits, are huge drivers in lifting working families out of poverty. However, even with these resources, millions of low-income families nationwide still struggle with meeting their families’ basic needs.

The Casey Foundation offers a number of recommendations to improve opportunities for all children. The Foundation promotes a two-generation strategy that simultaneously addresses the needs of children, while at the same time providing tools and resources for their parents. Three critical strategies include:

  • Providing parents with multiple pathways to get family-supporting jobs and achieve financial stability,
  • Ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education, and
  • Equipping parents to better support their children socially and emotionally and to advocate for their kids’ education.

The Casey Foundation recommends policies that promote higher pay, paid sick leave, flexible scheduling and expanded unemployment benefits that will result in higher family income, reduced parental stress and an increased capacity of parents to invest in their kids. Detailed recommendations can be found in the 2014 report, “Creating Opportunities for Families: A To-Generation Approach, which can be found online at http://www.aecf.org/resources/creating-opportunity-for-families/

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Contact: Jennifer Calder, Montana KIDS COUNT communications director, 406-243-2725, jennifer.calder@business.umt.edu .