In Child Well-Being, Montana’s Health Indicators and Overall Ranking Improve, But Poverty Persists

June 21, 2016

MISSOULA – Montana has seen the biggest improvement in state rankings of child well-being, moving up six positions from 30th to 24th in the U.S., according to the 2016 KIDS COUNT Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on key trends in child well-being in the post-recession years. The data book measures child well-being in four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.

“This positive change in rankings reflects some real improvements for children in our state,” said Thale Dillon, director of Montana KIDS COUNT, “particularly in the area of children’s health.”

Other indicators and domains are more mixed. Dillon recommends considering Montana’s ranking with a “note of caution.”

“Some increases in rank, as well as decreases, are not limited to how Montana is doing, but may be due to another state moving up or falling back,” Dillon said. “It’s important to also look at the state data trends and what is happening over time.”

This year’s data book shows that teens in the U.S. are making gains in education and health indicators, despite growing up in the midst of the economic downturn – a trend found both in Montana and nationwide. The report also reveals disturbing trends in the persistence of children living in poverty – a finding that highlights the need for policies that advance two-generation solutions to provide opportunities for all children and families.

In the health domain, Montana ranked 39th, the state’s best ranking since the Casey Foundation started its tracking. Driving this improvement are positive trends in three of the four health indicators the data book has documented since 2009.

Since 2010, the number of Montana children and teens who lost their lives is down 35 percent, improving the state’s ranking from 50th to 38th.

 “We’re interested in what is preventable,” Dillon said. “Year after year, the biggest causes of preventable child death are accidents, most notably, motor vehicle crashes and suicide.”

As a result, Montana continues its efforts to increase seat belt use among all age groups and implement prevention programs that focus on suicide, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

Mirroring national trends, Montana continues to see reduced rates of uninsured children. State and federal programs have worked to move the uninsured rate from 12 percent of Montana children in 2010, to 8 percent in 2014. Nationally, about 6 percent of children do not have health insurance.

During the 2010-11 school year, 10 percent of Montana teens ages 12 to 17 reported abusing alcohol or drugs. Each subsequent year, Montana has shown improvement in both percent and ranking, with the rate dropping to 6 percent in 2013-14 and ranking decreasing from 50th to 35th.

“Given everything we know about how drugs and alcohol impact the developing brain, this is encouraging news,” Dillon said. “Lower rates of addiction and abuse will improve not only short-term decision-making ability, but long-term cognitive abilities as well.”

Montana’s rank of 24th in the education domain results from higher-than-average graduation rates of 85 percent, tempered by low-to-nonexistent investment in high-quality early childhood education. The state’s lack of universal pre-K education is leaving approximately 15,000 Montana 3- and 4-year-olds without access to high-quality early education, which strongly affects their school readiness and future chances at success.

In the family and community domain, Montana ranked 15th based on indicators that trend in multiple directions. The teen birth rate continues its dramatic decline, nationally and in Montana, reaching a new, all-time low of 26 per 1,000 women ages 15-19, although remaining the highest among affluent countries. As for the number of children living in high poverty areas, Montana’s trend is essentially flat at 7 percent during the past few years.

In the domain of economic well-being, Montana ranked 19th with levels of persistent poverty that follow national trends. Between 2009 and 2014, Montana children living in poverty went from 20 to 19 percent, or approximately 41,000 children. While there has been little change in the percentage of children in poverty, Montana’s rank has improved from 27th to 22nd, the result of other states falling further behind, causing Montana to move up.

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Contact: Thale Dillon, director, Montana KIDS COUNT, UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 406-243-2780, thale.dillon@business.umt.edu.